POLITICS

Senate Decides Social Security Cuts For 'Fugitives' Are A Bad Idea

Removing the measure helped jump-start debate on the bill.

WASHINGTON -- After mounting pressure from Democrats, Senate Republicans removed a controversial Social Security provision from an unrelated bill to fund construction of the nation's highways.

Right before a key procedural vote on Wednesday night, proponents of the bill agreed to cut the Social Security offset in an effort to garner support from more Democrats, according to a Democratic leadership aide.

The provision would have saved an estimated $2.3 billion over 10 years by disallowing Social Security retirement, disability or supplemental income benefits to anyone with an outstanding felony warrant being actively pursued by law enforcement. But a number of Democrats weren’t happy with it, and raised it as “a major sticking point” during a party meeting Wednesday afternoon, the aide told The Huffington Post.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) cut the measure as part of broader negotiations, spokesman Don Stewart confirmed.

Cutting the provision was a big factor in how the highway bill’s supporters were able to secure votes for cloture, jump-starting debate on the bill after the first try failed.

Notably, the Democratic caucus split at the seams as they cast their votes on the procedural motion. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a member of the leadership team, along with 14 other Democrats and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) voted with Republicans to advance the bill.

Another senior Democratic aide said the decision to pull the provision appeared to happen right before the vote. The Social Security item was one of more than a dozen small unrelated provisions senators had cobbled together to offset the cost of the bill.

The legislative jigsaw over the bill, which will authorize spending levels for the Highway Trust Fund for six years, and pay for three of those years, comes just eight days before the fund expires on July 31. While hailed as a “breakthrough” deal by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who negotiated the details of the bill with McConnell, Democrats in both chambers are fuming over its contents.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Thursday questioned the Senate's judgement in bringing forward a long-term bill instead of what the House passed, singling out the Social Security offset as one of the many provisions she opposed. Pelosi added that she had been told the offset would be removed, and said that the Senate "could not possibly" finish their bill by the July 31 deadline. 

To win over Democrats, the measure initially allowed the Social Security Administration to continue benefits to any recipient for "good cause," but Democrats weren't impressed. Neither was the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, which said in a statement that the amount of money saved "makes it clear that the proposal means cutting off all Social Security and SSI benefits for hundreds of thousands of Americans."

Republicans have said the felony provision rectifies an obvious waste of government money, and Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas), the top proponent of the measure on the House side, has trumpeted support for the measure from local law enforcement officials.

The measure harks back to the tough-on-crime politics of the 1990s and is similar to a provision from the 1996 welfare reform law designed to stop benefits to "fleeing felons," a scheme that was broadened in 2005 and eventually stymied by federal courts. The program had ensnared some innocent people who happened to have the same names as felons and also stopped benefits to some people guilty of things such as writing bad checks in the distant past. In 2009, the Social Security Administration agreed to pay $500 million in back benefits to 80,000 people wrongfully cut off.

The National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare hailed the decision to drop the provision.

"Dropping the Social Security cuts from the Highway bill is the first encouraging sign we’ve seen from this Congress, when it comes to Social Security & Medicare, this year," coalition spokeswoman Kim Wright said in an email. "We certainly hope they’ve finally realized using these programs as an ATM for everything else under the sun simple won’t fly with seniors who’ve paid into these programs their entire working lives."

This post has been updated with comment from Pelosi and from the National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare.

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