On Monday afternoon, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) delivered a speech on the Senate floor slamming those on Capitol Hill who want to cut Social Security in order to balance the budget and calling on Congress to expand the program instead.
"This is about our values," the senator said, "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."
Lawmakers have to come to an agreement to fund the government by mid-January, and some are floating Social Security cuts as a bargaining chip in a possible budget deal. Even President Barack Obama's last budget proposal contained cuts to the program.
Warren says slashing retirement benefits for elderly Americans is an absurd idea. Warren noted that Social Security payments are already stingy, averaging about $1,250 a month. Plus, an increasing number of Americans can no longer count on healthy pensions through their job. Two decades ago, 35 percent of jobs in the private sector offered workers a traditional pension that provided monthly payments retirees could rely on. Today, that number is only 18 percent. Some 44 million workers get no retirement help from their employers.
Because of the growing "retirement crisis" in America, Warren argued, "we should be talking about expanding Social Security benefits—not cutting them." She noted that several senators, including Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), have been pushing for just that.
Seniors are not going to get more generous retirement benefits as long as the GOP-dominated House opposes the idea. But most Democrats have said they won't agree to entitlement cuts without new revenues, and Republicans refuse to raise revenues, so real cuts are unlikely, too. Rather than hashing out a grand bargain that includes cuts to the safety net, Congress will probably kick the can down the road, and come to another modest, last-minute, short-term budget accord early next year.
But Warren's speech was about more than staving off immediate cuts to retirement benefits. It was yet another move to cement her role as Congress' star defender of the middle class. Warren has said she will not run for president in 2016. But this is one of many issues on which she has staked out a position to the left of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is widely expected to run. In a speech at Colgate University last month, Clinton did not rule out the idea of limited cuts to entitlement programs as a means to reaching a budget deal.