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Sen. Bill Cassidy wants to save Social Security

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

To the power of persuasion on Capitol Hill - if Washington does nothing, Social Security will start to run out of money in about a decade. That means benefits would be cut, and poverty rates would skyrocket among the elderly. Louisiana Republican Senator Bill Cassidy is trying to stop that from happening. NPR political correspondent Susan Davis recently sat down with Cassidy to talk about his big idea to fix it.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Senator Bill Cassidy is a gastroenterologist by trade, so he's comfortable doing uncomfortable things. In Congress, few things are more uncomfortable than trying to change Social Security - the so-called third rail of American politics - because any politician who tries to touch it risks getting burned.

BILL CASSIDY: The third rail should be that you're going to sit passively while the program goes insolvent. I'm trying to stop those cuts. Allowing the cuts should be the third rail.

DAVIS: He's an equal opportunity critic of President Biden and former President Donald Trump, the current frontrunner for the Republican nomination, because both men are campaigning to protect Social Security, but light on any details of how exactly they plan to do that.

CASSIDY: If I sound aggravated as heck, we've got a program that's going insolvent in 8 to 9 years, at which point, by the way, poverty among the elderly doubles. And we have the leading presidential candidates acting like there's not a problem.

DAVIS: Social Security is funded by workers' payroll taxes and is barred by law from borrowing money. Once it starts to run out of money, the only recourse is automatic benefit cuts for recipients. On its current course, that will start to happen around 2034 and could result in a 24% decrease in benefits. Nearly everyone over the age of 65 in America receives some form of Social Security benefit. So about two years ago, Cassidy had the spark of what he dubs the big idea.

CASSIDY: It suddenly occurred to me that we could address this by creating an investment fund.

DAVIS: He linked up with independent Maine Senator Angus King, who caucuses with Democrats, and they started putting together the pieces of how it would work. The pitch goes like this - the government invests $1.5 trillion over five years in an independent investment fund separate from Social Security.

CASSIDY: You would let it sit there for 70 years, and you would allow it to grow.

DAVIS: The risk is on the fund and not on the taxpayer. It models investment funds for other existing federal pension programs.

CASSIDY: It blossoms and eventually becomes adequate to pay for 75% of the liabilities of the Social Security trust fund.

DAVIS: The government would have to borrow money to make sure scheduled benefits are paid out.

CASSIDY: But you're borrowing money against the money which is in the fund, so it decreases the risk of our debt and deficit.

DAVIS: The fund would be managed independently of Congress to prevent future political interference.

CASSIDY: I just tell people, you may not like our plan. Come up with a better option.

DAVIS: He concedes his plan only solves most of the problem and avoids the tougher questions about whether to raise taxes or the retirement age. Solving those questions, he says, will require presidential leadership. But he said, at a minimum, he supports no plan that will raise taxes on seniors or affect anyone close to retirement. Then comes the hardest part.

CASSIDY: Then you need the political consensus.

DAVIS: Cassidy and his allies have been quietly working Washington channels through lobbying shops, think tanks and economic gurus to get feedback and buy-in.

CASSIDY: I could give you a list of probably 50 different entities on the right and the left that we went to speak to to either build support or to learn from them, and the final product is robust.

DAVIS: It's also still a little unclear. While Cassidy makes no secret of his plan, there's no official legislative text and no plans to hold any public forums or hearings. That's by design.

CASSIDY: Until a president chooses to show leadership, there's no reason to have a hearing because it will become fodder for somebody running for reelection who would rather be irresponsible with the future of the United States as opposed to being honest with the American people and coming up with an innovative solution.

DAVIS: There was a moment after the 2022 midterms in which Cassidy thought the Biden White House might engage on Social Security because, he says, divided government is the ideal time to fix entitlement programs because they have to have bipartisan support. But then Biden made attacking Republicans on Social Security a central message of his State of the Union address, and Cassidy knew it was over.

CASSIDY: Ultimately, they have decided that the president is going to run for reelection, accusing Republicans of wanting to destroy Social Security.

DAVIS: While he says he will vote Republican in 2024, he's already made it clear he will not vote for Trump if he is the party's nominee. Cassidy was one of seven Senate Republicans who voted to convict Trump in the Senate impeachment trial for his role in inciting the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Whether or not being an opponent of the most popular man in the Republican Party will make it difficult to advance policy ideas within that same party, Cassidy shrugs.

CASSIDY: Scripture says that the day's own troubles be sufficient for the day. I could worry all I want to about tomorrow. My goal is today.

DAVIS: For now, Cassidy and his allies are waiting for their moment, which will come sometime after the 2024 election and sometime before Social Security hits insolvency in about a decade.

CASSIDY: I'm here to do something, not to be something. And if we can do something, wow - on my epitaph, it'll be several things listed, but one of them will be, worked with others to fix Social Security.

DAVIS: He said he intends to spend the rest of his time in Congress trying to solve it. He's next up for reelection in 2026.

Susan Davis, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.