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Touching Social Security has often been described as touching the third rail of American politics. But on Capitol Hill, there's a growing drumbeat from many Republicans. They want to reduce the cost of Social Security as part of their larger push to rein in deficit spending. And they want Democrats, especially President Obama, to join the cause and share whatever political fallout comes with it.
NPR's David Welna has our story.
DAVID WELNA: For many Republicans in Congress, it's become an article of faith that Social Security's days may be numbered. They believe the best time to fix it is now, at a time of divided government, when both Democrats and Republicans could share ownership of a reform.
Last week on the Senate floor, freshman Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky demanded that Social Security be restructured.
Senator RAND PAUL (Republican, Kentucky): Most young people acknowledge that it's broken - it's broken so badly that the only way we fix it, and the only way it can continue, is we have to look at the eligibility. But so many people have said oh, we can't talk about entitlement. You'll be unelected; you'll be unelectable if you talk about entitlement reform.
WELNA: Republicans say that without reform, Social Security is bound to be an ever greater fiscal burden. Alabama Senator Richard Shelby points out that last year, for the first time since Social Security began in 1935, the program paid out more in benefits than it received in payroll taxes.
Senator RICHARD SHELBY (Republican, Alabama): Social Security is now at the tipping point, the first step of a long, slow march to insolvency if we don't do something about it.
WELNA: Democrats contend that because Social Security built up a $2.8 trillion trust fund from surpluses, the program should remain fully solvent until 2037. But as Oklahoma Republican Senator Tom Coburn says, the federal government borrowed that trust fund money, and used up every dime of it.
Senator TOM COBURN (Republican, Oklahoma): The fact is, is $2.8 trillion was stolen from Social Security. The money was spent. It's broke. And we're going to have to fund 2.8 trillion over the next 20 years just to make the payments that we've got. I think most people would think we ought to fix that.
WELNA: But so far, Republicans have had a hard time persuading Democrats - and one of them in particular - to jump aboard the GOP's fix-Social-Security-now bandwagon. Here's Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): Something must be done. And now is the time to do it. Republicans are ready and willing. Where is the president? Suddenly, at the moment when we can actually do something about this, he's silent.
WELNA: President Obama did come close to talking about Social Security at a White House news conference on Friday. He declared that once a short-term budget is worked out, big government expenditures must be taken on.
President BARACK OBAMA: What it means is, is that we got to make sure that we're tackling defense spending, we're tackling tax expenditures and tax loopholes, that we're tackling entitlements.
WELNA: Democrats on Capitol Hill seem even less inclined than the president to touch the Social Security third rail. Dick Durbin, who is the Senate's number two Democrat and a close ally of the president, says for many Americans, Social Security is about the only thing they can count on during hard economic times.
Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): So it creates a very delicate political climate. It's particularly hard, I think, for Democrats because this is a program that we're proud of - its origins with Franklin Roosevelt and our party. And we've stood by it through thick and thin, and I think a lot of people are reluctant to bring it into the mix.
WELNA: But not Republicans. South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint acknowledges there is a risk pressing now for Social Security reforms.
Senator JIM DeMINT (Republican, South Carolina): It is politically dangerous, but I think the mood of the country is different than it has been at any time in my lifetime. They expect us to do things to stop the bankrupting of the country.
WELNA: Like set up private retirement accounts for people under 55, DeMint says. And that's why Maryland Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski is deeply suspicious of the GOP's motives.
Senator BARBARA MIKULSKI (Democrat, Maryland): I think it's a stalking horse for those who want to privatize Social Security. They want Social Security to become a dot-com. I want to keep it a dot-gov.
WELNA: Today, a group of like-minded lawmakers proposed protecting Social Security by requiring a two-thirds majority vote for any changes in the program. That measure's lead sponsor is Vermont independent Senator Bernie Sanders.
Senator BERNIE SANDERS (Independent, Vermont): This country faces a lot of very serious crises which should be dealt with yesterday. Social Security happens not to be one of them.
WELNA: Not for Democrats, anyway.
David Welna, NPR News, The Capitol