BENNINGTON -- Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has created a Social Security caucus in the Senate to defend the entitlement program from anticipated attacks.
"My job is to do everything I can to rally congressional support to defend Social Security and to rally the American people," Sanders, an independent, said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "We want to be safe rather than sorry."
The new caucus will focus solely on defending Social Security, the retirement, disability and survivor program initially signed into law by former President Franklin Roosevelt in 1935 as part of the New Deal.
Sanders said he expects a strong effort to dismantle or weaken the program, which he called "one of the great success stories of the United States of America."
A special debt commission recently suggested changes to the program, including a reduction in benefits and increasing the retirement age to 69. And Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee who delivered the GOP response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night, laid out a proposed financial road map last year that calls for privatization of the program.
"There will be a significant Republican effort, perhaps led by ... Paul Ryan, to move toward privatization, but certainly the president would not support that," Sanders said.
Obama called for Social Security reform in his Tuesday address, but said solutions should not include a reduction in benefits or be found through privatization.
"To put us on solid ground, we should also find a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations," Obama said. "And we must do it without putting at risk current retirees, the most vulnerable, or people with disabilities; without slashing benefits for future generations; and without subjecting Americans’ guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market."
Critics of Social Security have argued that 70 million baby boomers will strain the program, or perhaps even bust it. But Sanders maintains the program "can pay out benefits for everyone for the next 27 years." It can pay out 80 percent of benefits thereafter, he said.
"There has been a lot of misinformation and disinformation coming from those people who want to privatize it or weaken it," Sanders said. "It happens to be completely untrue. This is not a debate. This is a fact.
"The point is, what I resent, is that people suggest that Social Security is in crisis when it can pay out benefits for 27 years. We’ve got a lot of problems in this country; Social Security is not one of the major ones," Sanders said.
Currently, only the first $106,000 of a person’s income is assessed the payroll tax that supports the Social Security trust fund. Sanders said he supports boosting the maximum income level eligible for the assessment to $250,000.
Fellow Sens. Charles Schumer of New York, Barbara Boxer of California, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Shelden Whitehouse of Rhode Island, have also joined the caucus, according to Sanders. It will meet today for the first time and continue to meet "as often as necessary," he said.