Democrats are making a pre-election pitch to give Social Security recipients a one-time payment of $250, part of a larger effort to convince senior voters that their party, and not Republicans, will best look out for the 58 million people who get the government retirement and disability benefits.
The $250 check is meant to make up for a second year without a cost-of-living increase due to low inflation.
President Barack Obama has urged Congress to approve the $250 payment. House and Senate Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid say they will bring up the legislation when lawmakers return for the lame-duck session in November. In the meantime, Democrats are using the proposal to augment their campaign pitch that Republicans would undermine Social Security.
"Instead of helping seniors," Pelosi's office said, "Republicans, backed by their allies on Wall Street, are threatening to privatize and cut Social Security, just as they tried to do under President Bush."
Added Reid, "The only thing standing in the way of America's seniors receiving this critical support are Senate Republicans."
Actually, 12 Democrats and one independent who aligns himself with Democrats joined 37 Republicans in blocking the $250 bonus when Senate voted on the issue last March. Two of the Senate Democrats who voted against it then, Michael Bennet of Colorado and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, are engaged in tough campaign battles to keep their seats.
Democratic leaders in the House never brought the issue up for a vote. Obama first asked Congress for the $250 payment last February.
"It's clearly a last-ditch election-year Hail Mary," said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio. If supplementing the incomes of seniors was really a priority, he said, Democrats would have acted on it before they adjourned for the campaign.
Democrats may have the votes in the House to push through the measure, although still unanswered is how they plan to cover the estimated $13 billion to $14 billion cost of giving $250 to each of more than 50 million Social Security beneficiaries. Obama hasn't offered any suggestions and the Senate measure last March was rejected 47-50 primarily because it would have stacked the cost on top of the nearly $12 trillion federal debt.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., offered a counterproposal then that would have paid for the bonus with unspent money from the $814 billion stimulus package, but it was rejected by an even wider 38-59 margin. Proponents in both cases needed 60 votes.
Helping seniors "has broad-based support within the Senate body, but I think it is responsible to say that to do this, we should pay for it," Burr said at the time. "To do this, we should not print more money, borrow that money just to provide a $250 check."
Colorado's Bennet was one of nine Democrats to support the Burr approach. His office said he had spoken to seniors across his state who depend on the Social Security cost-of-living adjustment, and "he supports efforts to provide seniors with a one-time increase as long as it is paid for."
Neither Pelosi nor Reid have given any specifics on how, or if, the bill would be paid for. Pelosi's office said it would be "fiscally responsible."
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., characterized the choice between paying $13 billion to help seniors and $70 billion a year over 10 years to extend the George W. Bush tax cuts for those with annual incomes of more than $250,000.
"Senior citizens are hurting," he said, and helping them out "is a good argument for Democrats and a good argument for Republicans." Sanders acknowledged that Republican support is key, and won't be easy.
"Will it be paid for?" asked Don Stewart, press spokesman for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. "That question matters."
The House bill is H.R. 5987.