By Audie Cornish
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The talk in Congress is about salaries too, and highways and entitlements and all the other things that make up the federal budget. Members of Congress can't agree on how to trim those expenses. That's holding up negotiations over this year's budget, and they're already fighting over next year's. Yesterday, Democrats held a rally protect Social Security from changes Republicans haven't even proposed yet.
NPR's Audie Cornish has more.
AUDIE CORNISH: With people waving their hands and printed signs in the air, the feeling was more pep rally or tent revival then press conference.
Mr. WADE HENDERSON (President and CEO, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights): Good morning. Good morning. Come on, let's pump it up. I love those signs. Hey. Lift up those signs. Back off of Social Security. That's right. That's right.
CORNISH: Wade Henderson, head of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, set the tone.
Mr. HENDERSON: Aren't we tired of hearing how the federal debt is being used as a justification to raid Social Security? Aren't we sick of that? And aren't we going to push back and fight against that?
CORNISH: The more than 250 people crammed into a Capitol hearing room were only a hint of the fervor Democrats hope to whip up if Republicans add Social Security to their entitlement reform effort.
Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): The Republicans don't seem to care. Look at HR1.
CORNISH: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tried to draw a connection between entitlement reform and recent budget cuts to an IT fund for the Social Security Administration, even though the cuts were approved by Democrats, as well.
Sen. REID: Back off Social Security. It's in great shape for the next many decades. Let's worry about Social Security when it's a problem. Today, it's not a problem.
(Soundbite of laughter)
(Soundbite of cheering, applause)
CORNISH: According to the non-partisan budget analysts at the Congressional Budget Office, it'll be another 25 years before Social Security reserves are exhausted. Even then, income from payroll taxes would cover benefits for another 50 years. But it's also the case that last year, the program paid out more than it took in. Republicans say that the fact that the program is projected to eat a larger and larger part of the GDP means the time is now to address the problem.
Representative ERIC CANTOR (Republican, Virginia; House Majority Leader): Harry Reid has said that Social Security does not have a problem. That would be reflecting what the illness is in Washington, and we're not backing down.
CORNISH: That's House Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor at a recent speech at the Hoover Institution. Cantor tried to send a clear signal to key voters with concerns about the GOP's plans.
Rep. CANTOR: I mean, just from the very notion that it said that 50 percent of beneficiaries under the Social Security program use those moneys as their sole source of income. So we've got to protect today's seniors. But for the rest of us? For - you know, listen. We're going to have to come to grips with the fact that these programs cannot exist if we want America to be what we want America to be.
CORNISH: Cantor says Republicans will unveil their plans for the 2012 budget soon, which will include entitlement program reforms. They're keeping the details quiet for now. But it's clear the GOP will have to make the first move, since the president didn't include changes to entitlements in his budget proposals, and Democrats are on the defense. That's no easy task, considering the unveiling will likely collide with the ongoing debates over the debt ceiling, the current budget, and the threat of a government shutdown.
Audie Cornish, NPR News, the Capitol.