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Dems Set Lame-Duck Vote on Extra Social Security Payment

October 18, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

The post-election lame duck session is going to be pretty much all about the Senate, with the House hanging around to sign off on Senate amendments to bills they have already passed and not much else. But there is one thing the House is going to take the lead on. On Friday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi [D, CA-8] announced that she was scheduling a vote on the Seniors Protection Act of 2010, which would give a one-time payment of $250 to social security recipients who are struggling in the recession economic downturn.

Pelosi’s announcement came on the heels of an announcement from the Social Security Administration that, for the second year in a row, seniors on social security will not be receiving a cost of living adjustment (COLA) in 2010. Since the Social Security Amendments Act passed by Congress in 1975, payments have been calculated automatically based on a formula using a 12-month view of the Consumer Price Index in order to keep pace with the rate of inflation. The CPI has been on a very steady increase for decades, but when the recession hit it tanked and it’s still below its peak level of July 2008. The COLA formula is designed to automatically block increases until the CPI is above its former peak. Therefore, no increase in payments. This is not an act of the 111th Congress, it’s an effect of actions taken by the 94th Congress, which, by the way, was controlled by the Democrats in both chambers.

Democrats argue that seniors have seen their cost of living increase in recent years because services they use more than the rest of the population — health care, prescription drugs, utilities — have risen beyond the rate of economy-wide inflation measures. Indeed, in 2009, while the CPI was down by 0.3%, the cost of name-brand prescription drugs increase by 9.3%. At the same time, seniors are seeing less of a return from their investments and the value of their equity in their homes has fallen.

The Seniors Protection Act of 2010 was introduced by Rep. Earl Pomeroy [D, ND-0] in July, long before the Social Security Administration announced that there would be no COLA for 2011. It would send a $250 payment to approximately 57 million seniors at a cost of about $14 billion. Since it was introduced, the bill has attracted127 co-sponsors, all of whom are Democrats. The bill as it exists right now doesn’t contain any kind of funding offset, but in her announcement on Friday Nancy Pelosi said it “will be fully paid for, not adding a dime to the deficit,” so we can expect some form of substitute amendment including an offset.

The bill has a good shot at making it through the House, but passage in the Senate is unlikely. In March, Sen. Bernie Sanders [I, VT], predicting no COLA for 2011, tried to get the ball rolling on a similar one-time $250 payment as an amendment to the the unemployment benefits and tax extenders bill (H.R. 4213). The amendment got just 47 votes. It needed 60 to overcome a filibuster and pass then, and it will need 60 votes in the lame-duck session when Senate Democrats bring it up again. That means they would have to flip all 12 Democrats who voted “no” in March, win over Sen. Joe Lieberman [I, CT], and keep Sen. Olympia Snowe [R, ME] an “aye.” Frankly, with everything else Senate Dems will be scrambling to get done before the session comes to a close, I don’t see that happening.

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