J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sen. Bernie Sanders, (I-VT) center, flanked by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev., (l) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, (D-CT) at a "Back Off Social Security" rally, March 28, 2011.
Just two weeks are left before the end of the latest temporary spending legislation under which the federal government is now operating and Democrats and Republicans seem as far as ever from an agreement on a budget for the rest of the fiscal year.
The latest news reports suggest that the odds of a government shutdown have risen significantly even though both sides have said such a disruption of government services is the last thing they want.
The Associated Press reports that talks between Republican and Democratic staffs broke down last week.
As NPR's Brian Naylor reported for All Things Considered, the sides are about $50 billion apart.
The Republicans who control the House want $61 billion in cuts from the fiscal 2011 budget. The Democrats who control the Senate initially offered $10 billion in spending cuts, then said they could do another $20 billion in reductions if Republicans were only willing to come off their number.
In an effort to make it seem as if Democratic hands are clean, Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid is attempting to portray the current difficulties as not so much between Democrats and Republicans as between the Republican establishment and Tea Party movement firebrands, as Brian reports.
Meanwhile, even as the parties find it impossible to reach agreement on how much and what to cut to reach a budget agreement for the current fiscal year, they were already positioning themselves for more impossible fights.
Republicans are planning to, in the near future, make proposals for slowing entitlement-spending growth.
Most fiscal experts say tackling entitlements is unavoidable if the federal government is to ever gain control of the part of federal spending exerting the greatest upward pressure on spending.
That means reducing the spending growth of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
Talking about reducing benefits in any way, shape or form for future Social Security recipients has long been political poison, the infamous and probably overused metaphor of the third rail of American politics.
Because of this, most anyone who has studied the problem says the only way it's going to be addressed is if both parties join hands and touch the rail together.
But on Monday, some of the Senate's most liberal Democrats, led by Reid at a Capitol Hill rally, gave every indication that if Republicans want to touch that electrified rail, they're on their own.
An excerpt from Brian's report:
BRIAN: Democrats have begun taking preemptive strikes at any possible Social Security cuts. At a rally at the Capitol today, they said that Social Security's problems are still years away. Here's Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders:
SANDERS: Now, if you want to talk about the deficit, talk about the wars. Talk about the Wall Street bailout. Talk about tax breaks for billionaires. Don't talk about Social Security.
Actually, if you listen to the experts, the nation really does have to talk about Social Security. As C. Eugene Steuerle, an Urban Institute fellow, recently wrote, spending on this program alone is expected to soar.
What does matter is that Social Security expenses are expected to rise by about 50 percent—from about 4.3 to 6.3 percentage points of GDP—from 2008 to 2030, and taxes aren't. As the baby boomers retire, higher expenses and less tax revenue mean that the national deficit will rise year after year...
... Those who say we can wait 20 years to address Social Security's solvency even though the system will soon be spending over 30 percent more than it collects in taxes have turned a blind eye to current and growing deficits. They seem to think that (1) we can count on income tax payers to raise more taxes, or we can cut other spending, or we can borrow more and pay interest to the trust funds as they move toward decline; or that (2) we can draw down assets (say, by borrowing more from China to pay off bonds in the Social Security trust fund) without consequences.