WASHINGTON -- Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) threw her increasingly high-profile name behind expanding Social Security benefits instead of reducing them, rejecting calls from those in both parties to cut payments as a way to trim government spending.
Warren joins a growing push that includes Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who argue that rather than switch to a "chained" consumer price index that cuts retiree benefits, the nation should adopt CPI-E, which measures the actual cost of living for the elderly and would raise benefits to meet actual needs.
Chained CPI assumes that when prices rise, people switch to cheaper products. Proponents say the inflation measure should be reduced to account for that, meaning the government could pay people smaller cost-of-living adjustments.
But Warren blasted that approach in a Senate floor speech Monday, saying that retirement security has become a "crisis" in America in which two-thirds of seniors depend on Social Security for the majority of their income.
"Chained CPI falls short of the actual increases in costs that seniors face, pure and simple," Warren said. "Chained CPI? It’s just a fancy way of saying cut benefits."
She took special exception to a Monday Washington Post editorial that called expanding Social Security "wrongheaded" and suggested the nation should instead be more concerned about the higher percentage of children living in poverty.
Warren said that argument was the "uglier side" of the debate.
"The suggestion that we have become a country where those living in poverty fight each other for a handful of crumbs tossed off the tables of the very wealthy is fundamentally wrong," Warren said. "This is about our values, and our values tell us that we don’t build a future by first deciding who among our most vulnerable will be left to starve.
"We don’t build a future for our children by cutting basic retirement benefits for their grandparents," Warren said.
To forecasters predicting that Social Security is on the path to insolvency, Warren noted that the safety net is actually pretty sturdy at the moment.
"Social Security has a $2.7 trillion surplus. If we do nothing, Social Security will be safe for the next 20 years and even after that will continue to pay most benefits," she said. "With some modest adjustments, we can keep the system solvent for many more years –- and could even increase benefits."
She did not specify the adjustments she would favor, but Sanders and others want to lift the cap on income that is taxed for Social Security, which currently stands at $113,700. Above that amount, no Social Security contributions are made now.
But cutting benefits -- when pensions are disappearing and there's a $6.6 trillion gap in what Americans younger than 65 save and what they will need in retirement -- is the wrong direction, Warren said.
"So long as we are in the midst of a real and growing retirement crisis -– a crisis that is shaking the foundations of what was once a vibrant and secure middle class –- the absolute last thing we should be doing is talking about
cutting back on Social Security," Warren said. "The absolute last thing we should do in 2013 -– at the very
moment that Social Security has become the principal lifeline for millions of our seniors -- is allow the program to begin to be dismantled inch by inch."
President Barack Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have signaled a willingness to cut Social Security if doing so would be part of some grand bargain to trim deficits, but Democrats across the board have ruled out such cuts in the current budget debate.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.