Like Biden, Sanders Once Urged Social Security ‘Adjustments’

Jennifer Epstein

(Bloomberg) -- Bernie Sanders is locked in an escalating feud with Joe Biden over whether the former vice president has advocated cutting Social Security, a program considered sacrosanct by many Democrats.

But Sanders himself once used language that was very similar to Biden’s to describe the need to bolster the federal retirement program.

While running for re-election in 1996, then-Congressman Sanders said at a news conference that the Social Security system had “been adjusted before, and adjustments will have to be made again.” The Sanders campaign has assailed Biden for saying Social Security was in need of “adjustments” in a 2018 speech, with Chief Policy Adviser Warren Gunnels on Wednesday quoting an interest group saying the term was a “euphemism” for cuts.

“When politicians want to expand Social Security, which is extremely popular, they say so. They don’t use euphemisms like ‘adjustments,’” Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works, said in the statement that Gunnels quoted on Twitter.

A Sanders campaign official said the candidate’s use of “adjustments” should be considered in context. He said Sanders supported legislation to raise more revenue for entitlement programs and for Social Security benefits to stay the same or expand. When he used “adjustments,” he did so as a third-term congressman who didn’t know how the word was used in centrist and right-leaning policy circles, the official argued.

“He may be borrowing a word but he’s speaking a totally different language,” said Sanders’ communications director, Mike Casca.

Neither Sanders nor Biden is calling for cuts to Social Security in the 2020 race. But Sanders’ campaign is trying to use some of Biden’s past statements to cut into the former vice president’s strong support among older voters, who tend to favor Biden’s moderate stances and vote in higher numbers than other demographic groups.

The two candidates are virtually tied for first place for the first two nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire in February, according to the RealClearPolitics aggregation of polls.

At the 1996 news conference, Sanders declined to list the adjustments he favored, according to the Bennington Banner, which reported on the event at the time.

But in an October 1996 Burlington Free Press guide to that year’s election, Sanders’ view on the issue was again described with the a-word. “Sanders says Social Security is projected to be solvent through 2020, but Congress will need to adjust revenues and benefits to keep it financially sound,” the paper said.

Sanders’ record shows he supported increasing funding for Social Security and opposed benefit cuts throughout his political career. In 1995, he warned that the Balanced Budget Amendment, which Biden supported, would lead to “the destruction of the Social Security system as we know it.” He also introduced and sponsored legislation throughout the 1990s to protect and increase Americans’ Social Security checks.

The fight erupted over the weekend, when Biden accused Sanders’ campaign of releasing what he called a “doctored video” purporting to show the former vice president agreeing with Republican proposals to privatize Social Security.

“It’s simply a lie, that video is a lie,” Biden said at a campaign event in Indianola, Iowa, on Saturday. “I’m looking for his campaign to come forward and disown it but they haven’t done it yet.”

The video, circulated on Twitter Jan. 1 by a Sanders adviser, features a snippet of a 2018 speech Biden gave at the Brookings Institution in Washington. The Sanders campaign said Biden could be heard agreeing with then-House Speaker Paul Ryan about privatizing Social Security. That claim was repeated in a Sanders campaign newsletter and was judged to be false by Politifact.

The Sanders campaign responded to Biden’s comments Saturday by releasing a compendium of what it claimed were Biden’s “repeated efforts to slash Social Security.”

2018 Speech

Gunnels said Wednesday that the difference between Sanders and Biden is that “Bernie has never called for cutting Social Security, raising the retirement age or cutting Cost of Living Adjustments for seniors or disabled veterans.” Sanders, he added, “has led the effort to protect and expand Social Security. Joe Biden has a 40-year history of proposing cuts to Social Security.”

In the speech, Biden appeared to favor tax increases on the wealthy to pay for Social Security and Medicare but also suggested that “adjustments” needed to be part of the equation.

“We need a pro-growth, progressive tax code that treats workers as job creators, as well, not just investors; that gets rid of unprotective loopholes like stepped-up basis; and it raises enough revenue to make sure that the Social Security and Medicare can stay, it still needs adjustments, but can stay; and pay for the things we all acknowledge will grow the country,” he said.

Biden has campaigned on a plan to shore up Social Security, which he said would expand the retirement program, not cut it. He has proposed lifting the cap on income subject to the tax that funds Social Security and Medicare, currently $137,700.

Sanders supports expanding Social Security benefits, including bolstering the minimum benefits for low-income workers when they retire. Sanders plans to finance the increases by removing the cap on Social Security payroll tax to apply it to all income over $250,000.

Disclaimer: Michael Bloomberg is also seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. He is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.

(Updates with comment from Sanders campaign, in fifth and sixth paragraphs.)

--With assistance from Emma Kinery.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jennifer Epstein in Washington at jepstein32@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Wendy Benjaminson at wbenjaminson@bloomberg.net, John Harney, Max Berley

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