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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

As we just heard, lawmakers are trying to work out a short-term spending agreement to prevent a government shutdown this coming weekend. Even as they focus on the next six months, some lawmakers want to overhaul the government's long-term budget, including entitlement programs like Social Security.

traditionally, Democrats have insisted Social Security should be off-limits, just as Republicans refuse to consider tax hikes.

But cracks are beginning to appear in those partisan firewalls, as NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Social Security is the federal governments biggest program, and one of its most popular. At a capitol rally last week, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders argued the retirement program should not be part of any big conversation on the federal budget.

Senator BERNIE SANDERS (Independent, Vermont): Talk about the wars. Talk about tax breaks for billionaires. Talk about the Wall Street bailout. Dont talk about Social Security.

(Soundbite of cheering crowd)

HORSLEY: By defending Social Security, Democrats also hope to defend themselves, and beat back Congressional Republicans. The committee in charge of electing Democrats to Congress is using Social Security as a campaign issue in newspaper ads and robo-calls like this one.

(Soundbite of robo-call)

Unidentified Woman: Everyone knows that Social Security belongs to the people who worked their whole life to pay into the system. But Representative Paul Ryan wants to use Social Security and Medicare as a piggybank for the government.

HORSLEY: Democrats have been campaigning as the champions of Social Security ever since Franklin Roosevelt launched the program in the 1930s. But Jim Kessler, whos with the moderate think tank, Third Way, suspects that tactic has finally grown outdated.

Mr. JIM KESSLER (Third Way): I think in normal times, that strategy works very, very well. I dont think were in normal times right now on this issue.

HORSLEY: Kessler notes that even after President Bush proposed big changes to Social Security in 2005, large numbers of seniors voted Republican in 2006, 2008, and 2010. In 2012, Kessler says, voters of all ages seem ready to embrace a hard-headed look at the federal budget, including Social Security.

Mr. KESSLER: Our view is that the party that seems most serious and is trying to reach an agreement on deficit reduction will have an advantage over the other party.

HORSLEY: Republican Congressman Paul Ryan told a Politico breakfast last month he's ready to bite the bullet, even though Ryan is the target of that Democratic robo-call we heard a moment ago. As chairman of the House Budget Committee, he's long argued Congress needs to get a grip on the cost of entitlement programs.

Congressman PAUL RYAN (Republican, Wisconsin): Is this a political weapon we are handing our political adversaries? Of course it is. But weve got to stop thinking about that and do what we really think is right to save the country.

HORSLEY: To be fair, Ryan is just as reluctant to consider tax increases as some Democrats are to consider changes to entitlement programs. But other lawmakers have shown a willingness to challenge that partisan orthodoxy. A bipartisan group in the Senate, dubbed the Gang of Six, has been working to craft legislation based on the recommendation of the president's fiscal commission. Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss says that includes not only cuts to discretionary spending, but also increased tax revenue and entitlement reform.

Senator SAXBY CHAMBLISS (Republican, Georgia): For a Republican to put revenues on the table is significant. For a Democrat to put entitlements on the table is significant. The only way were going to solve this problem is to have a dialogue about all these issues, because there is no silver bullet.

HORSLEY: Last month, 32 Democrats and 32 Republicans signed a letter, endorsing that broad approach. Nebraska Republican Mike Johanns, who drafted the letter, along with Colorado Democrat Michael Bennet, says their goal is to be inclusive and stop drawing lines in the sand.

Senator MIKE JOHANNS (Republican, Nebraska): You know if I start out today and say this has got to be on the table and thats got to be off the table, we cause certain members to say, whoa, wait a second, I wonder if I should be part of this effort. What we want to emphasize is senators are ready. Theyre ready to look at this in a comprehensive way.

HORSLEY: That could be the next big budget discussion, if lawmakers can agree, this week, to keep the government's lights on past Friday.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

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