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Current and future Social Security beneficiaries, which is to say almost all of us, owe Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill our thanks – and that fact comes as a big surprise. In the past, McCaskill’s support for the program, measured by her actions at least, has been iffy. Her overweening desire to impress the boobwazie with her fiduciary chops has led her in directions that could have had disastrous consequences. She used to be one of the most vocal Democrats voicing support for the Republican ruse to “reform” entitlements such as Social Security- positions that she now seems to eschew, at least officially. Her ill-considered effort to enact a federal spending cap would  have had disastrous results for Social Security and Medicare, forcing what the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities described as “draconian cuts in Social Security, Medicare, and many other programs while making it harder for the nation to recover from recession.”

Which is why my mouth dropped open when I heard that McCaskill was one of the senators who put pen to paper and signed a letter opposing the the first volley that the newly resurgent GOP has fired in the War on Social Security that has raged both covertly and overtly since the program was enacted:

After Republicans in the U.S. House voted to allow drastic cuts to Social Security benefits for millions of Americans with disabilities, including veterans and children, U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill and several Senate colleagues have appealed to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his colleagues in the Republican leadership, urging that they not pursue the measure.

The cuts, which could be as high as 20 percent, would impact nearly 250,000 Missourians with disabilities, their children, and their spouses.

“We are deeply concerned that the rule change in the House will impact millions of Social Security beneficiaries,” McCaskill and her colleagues wrote in the letter. “According to its actuaries, the Social Security Disability Trust Fund will be unable to pay full disability benefits starting as early as 2016, meaning that legislative action will be necessary to protect the benefits of nearly 11 million Americans. Instead of taking responsible action to address this issue, House Republicans acted according to their extreme ideology and put these benefits at risk by adopting a legislative rule change that creates a point of order against simple bipartisan technical corrections (called reallocations) to adjust the financing of the Social Security Disability Trust Fund.”

Joan McCarter at DailyKos succinctly describes the rule change that McCaskill refers to in the excerpt above as the first step in a ploy to decimate the program:

The 114th Congress has begun with a Republican party that is emboldened and as determined to cripple Social Security as they have been since President George W. Bush’s disastrous 2005 effort to privatize it. Georgia Republican Rep. Tom Price has taken over the House Budget Committee from Rep. Paul Ryan, and has even bigger ambitions to destroy the program than his predecessor, now even talking about privatization, something Ryan would only extend to Medicare. Price told the Heritage Action for America “Conservative Policy Summit” on Monday that he wants to “begin to normalize the discussion and debate about Social Security.” By “normalize, he means cut it:

“[W]hether it’s means testing, whether it’s increasing the age of eligibility […] whether it’s providing much greater choices for individuals to voluntarily select the kind of manner in which they believe they ought to be able to invest their working dollars as they go through their lifetime.”

Price and his fellow Republicans in leadership have set the stage to begin this effort, and as usual did it with some hostage taking. This time the hostages are about 11 million people who receive Social Security disability benefits. That program is expected to hit a shortfall next year, and benefits will be automatically cut unless the program gets an influx of cash. This has happened in the past, in both the retirement and the disability programs. What has always happened in the past-with no big controversy-is that Congress has authorized the transfer of funds from one of the programs to the other. But last week the House passed a new rule that says Congress can’t do that any more unless they also take some action to “fix” (read slash) the Social Security system.

What this could mean, if folks like Claire McCaskill don’t stay firm, is disaster for many if not most older Americans. In 2010, The New York Times reported that Americans over 65 got 40% of their income from Social Security. Subsequent studies showed that our Social Security system sustains our elderlly and provides “the one income stream that is secure and does not fluctuate with the marketplace.”

And, discounting efforts to manufacture crises, and claims previously made by folks like Claire McCaskill, Social Security will be fully solvent until 2033, at which time it will still be able to meet 77% of its obligations. That’s eighteen years, plenty of time to fix what is essentially a revenue problem – it could be fixed right now by raising the cap on FICA slightly. No need for means-testing, raising the eligibility age or, God forbid, throwing seniors on the mercy of a wildly fluctuating private investment market.

That Social Security is a vital program that protects the prosperity of the American middle class is not, however, an important consideration for members of the Republican party. There are, to be sure, many varieties of ideology and personal interest that underly the hostility that animates efforts to weaken and destroy such successful government programs, but at the deepest level, the mindset reflects an ugly, every-man-for-himself ideology. The dominant strain of conservative thought, which has captured the GOP almost entirely, is expressed in such retrograde books as Rooseveltcare: How Social Security is Sabotaging the Land of Self-Reliance, which Amazon.com summarizes as follows:

Today we are at a crossroads. America’s entitlement state is threatening to bankrupt us, and new schemes such as ObamaCare are hastening the collapse. What should we do? In this provocative look at America before and after Social Security, Don Watkins argues that the answer is as simple as it is controversial: Abolish the entitlement state, starting with the retirement program that created it. This is not another book for policy wonks about the financial trouble the entitlement state is in. This is the story of the role that Social Security has played in eroding the eagerness, energy and optimism that once defined America. And it is a guide for fighting back.

WhooHoo! Battle lines have been drawn and we’ve got to hope that Claire McCaskill has seen the error of her past ways and will help hold the line. It is not reassuring that she is widely viewed as part of the wedge that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will wield to destroy progressive Democratic resistance:

For now, the grouping of senators deserving the most attention is the “centrist seven,” the cluster of Democrats who stand out as the likeliest to get behind aspects of the new Republican majority’s legislative program. And they may be joined once in a while by as many as five others in their party who’ve shown flashes of moderation in the recent past, yielding a universe of potential aisle-crossers who could be dubbed the “dispositive dozen” of the 114th Congress. They are the centrist Democrats most essential to Mitch McConnell in his debut as majority leader.

[…]

Operatives in both parties identify the senators in the current secondary circle of centrists as Michael Bennet, who will be pressed to move toward the middle ahead of his 2016 campaign for a second full term in swing-state Colorado; Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, and three others who have until 2018 before running again in potential tossup states: Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who announced Monday that she planned to continue her political career in the Senate rather than run for governor next year.

No matter what, though, we’ve got to thank her for standing up for Social Security this week and helping expose the GOP stealth attack. But what’s the story going forward? Can we count on Claire – especially in the light of her past history? Do we believe that she’s turned a corner and is beginning to understand that no matter how politically palatable her “moderation” may be, as Barry Goldwater put it, “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue”?