WASHINGTON -- Sen. Harry Reid on Monday raised the stakes in an upcoming debate in Congress over the deficit by vowing anew to reject any overhaul of Social Security as part of a long-term solution to the government's budget woes.
Flanked by four Democratic senators, the Senate majority leader from Nevada led a campaign-style political rally defending Social Security before an audience of about 300 including senior citizens, disabled people and workers wearing union stickers or hats.
It was the latest bid by the Democrats to seize Social Security as a public relations tool after Republicans said they would address entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare in upcoming talks to restructure the government to combat escalating debt.
"I have to say the Republicans don't seem to care," Reid said as he accused the GOP of wanting to do away with the politically popular program through budget cuts or changes that would reduce benefits or raise the retirement age.
Democrats said there was one change they might accept: increasing Social Security taxes on the wealthy.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, led chants for Congress to "raise the cap," referring to current law that imposes the Social Security payroll tax only on the first $106,800 of gross wages.
"Why is it that someone who makes $50,000 a year pays on every last dollar they make into Social Security and somebody who makes $500,000 a year only pays 20 cents on the dollar," Harkin said. "If you want to put more money into Social Security, let's go where the money is, to the people not paying their fair share."
The rally over Social Security comes as Democrats and Republicans appear at another impasse on a more immediate goal: to fund the government for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
Federal agencies have been kept open through short-term spending bills, but the latest one expires April 8. Talks over a deal reportedly broke down last week .
Reid said Monday that "Tea Party Republicans are scrapping all the progress we have made and threatening to shut down the government if they do not get all of their extreme demands." He called on "mainstream Republicans" to stand up to the more conservative elements who are demanding deeper rollbacks.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., responded that Democrats are not being serious in the talks.
"Senator Reid failed to pass a budget last year and once again is abandoning his responsibility to offer a credible plan to cut spending and fund the government for the rest of the year," Cantor said. "It is clear that because Senator Reid refuses to make any spending cuts, he instead plans to force a massive future tax hike on families and small business people.
"In the scope of our debt crisis, if Senator Reid and Senator (Chuck) Schumer (D-N.Y.) force the government to partially shut down over these sensible spending cuts, Americans will hold them accountable," Cantor said.
Democrats have readied a proposal to cut $20 billion more from this year's budget, a party official said, but they haven't sent it to House Republicans. That is because Democrats say it's unclear whether the majority Republicans would accept a split-the-difference bargain they had earlier hinted at or would yield to demands of Tea Party-backed GOP freshmen for a tougher measure.
Last month, House Republicans passed a measure cutting more than $60 billion from the $1.1 trillion budgeted for such programs last year. All of the savings were taken from domestic programs and foreign aid, which make up about half of the pot. Democrats in the Senate killed the measure as too extreme, citing cuts to education, health research, food inspection and other programs and services.
Since then, Republicans have won $10 billion in spending cuts as the price for two stopgap measures that have prevented a government shutdown.
Reaching agreement between Democrats and Republicans is proving difficult enough. Then comes the harder part for House Speaker John Boehner: convincing his many Tea Party-backed GOP freshmen that the sort of split-the-differences measure Obama could sign isn't a sellout.
Tea Party groups have announced a Washington rally for Thursday to express their impatience with Republicans on the budget battle.
A half-dozen Republican and Democratic senators are negotiating possible deals to reduce the national debt, on the heels of recommendations by the leaders of a debt commission appointed last year by President Barack Obama.
Commission leaders Erskine Bowles, a Democrat, and Alan Simpson, a Republican, proposed spending cuts, tax reform and changes to entitlement programs to cut the deficit by $828 billion over five years. On Social Security, they said it could be made solvent by raising the retirement age, hiking taxes and lowering benefits for wealthy beneficiaries.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760.