But don’t call it welfare

Some observers find it an odd political dynamic.

Many Republicans advocate means testing or curtailing entitlement benefits for the wealthy, while at the same time seeking to ease the tax burden on high earners.

Meanwhile, many Democrats adamantly oppose cutting Social Security or Medicare benefits for the rich, the very group they often target for higher taxes. So what gives?

Leave it to Bernie Sanders, the Senate’s only avowed socialist, to explain with crystal clarity.

“The strength of Social Security and Medicare is that everybody is in,” Sen. Sanders, a Vermont “independent,” told Bloomberg News. “Once you start breaking that universality and you say that if you’re above a certain income, two years later that income goes down and 10 years later it becomes a welfare program.”

Bingo. These programs have survived for as long as they have — and have been virtually impossible to reform — because they enjoy universal constituencies. Start reducing the number of people who are forced to participate and you erode the strength of the dependent class, making the programs more vulnerable to critical examination, like other wealth transfers. That’s precisely what Democrats fear.

But while Congress has a less-than-admirable track record when it comes to addressing fiscal reality, it is virtually impossible to concoct an entitlement reform package that doesn’t include some benefit cuts for the well-off.

“It’s inevitable,” Bob Bixby of the Concord Coalition told Bloomberg. “I understand the Democrats’ arguments. I just don’t think it holds up in the face of the fiscal challenges we have.” Noted Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.: “There’s only so much money to go around. Wealthier people are going to pay more.”

Meanwhile, Democrats continue to grapple with the issue.

“I’ve had a lot of people who are very wealthy and retired who ask me why they continue to receive a full Social Security check,” said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat. “It’s a legitimate question.”

But is it one that Democrats have the courage to confront?

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