PolitiFact Florida: Rubio says Republicans didn't want Social Security changes in cliff deal

Published Jan. 7, 2013

The fiscal cliff negotiations are over for now, but while they were happening, there were lots of accusations and finger-pointing before Congress and President Barack Obama reached agreement.

Amid the home stretch, Florida's Sen. Marco Rubio — who voted no on the overall deal — took to Twitter. On the afternoon of Dec. 30, he tweeted: "Report that #GOP insisting on changes to Social Security as part of #fiscalcliff false. BTW those changes are supported by @barackobama."

The next day, liberal columnist Paul Krugman said Rubio lied about the negotiations, and that "numerous reports tell us that McConnell did in fact make precisely that demand," referring to the Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

We decided to sort out the controversy by investigating Rubio's claim that the GOP did not insist on changes to Social Security as part of the fiscal cliff and whether Obama actually supported those changes.

'Chained CPI'

The final days of fiscal cliff negotiations hit a roadblock amid a controversy about something called "chained CPI," which would reduce future spending on Social Security for seniors.

Most years, seniors get cost-of-living adjustments that slightly increase their monthly Social Security payments. If chained CPI were adopted, the increases would be smaller.

What is chained CPI? The CPI stands for "consumer price index." Chained CPI accounts for how people change their behavior when costs go up: So if the price of pasta goes up, you might buy cheaper rice instead.

Supporters of chained CPI say it's a way to reduce Social Security spending without making major changes to the program. Opponents say it's essentially a reduction in Social Security payments that hits many seniors who are barely getting by.

Switching to chained CPI has drawn support from an array of economists and experts. The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform included the idea in its recommendations. The conservative Heritage Foundation has endorsed chained CPI, and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank, has shown support for it under certain conditions, if it includes a modest benefit increase.

Switching to chained CPI isn't a new concept. The Washington Post reported that Obama "tentatively embraced" chained CPI during 2011 negotiations with House Republicans on the debt ceiling.

But back then, many Democrats and the AARP pushed back. When Obama released his deficit-reduction plan in September 2011, it did not include the change.

But postelection, as Obama wanted to avoid going over the fiscal cliff, he again seemed open to switching inflation measures. In mid-December, Obama reportedly agreed to chained CPI, again angering some in his own party.

Obama spoke about his chained CPI proposal on Meet the Press on Dec. 30, noting that it was not popular with Democrats or the AARP. "But in pursuit of strengthening Social Security for the long-term I'm willing to make those decisions," he said.

During the final weekend of backroom negotiations on the fiscal cliff, multiple news reports said McConnell included the chained CPI in an offer. The Los Angeles Times wrote that McConnell included it in his proposal on the evening of Dec. 29.

At some point the next afternoon, though, Republicans dropped their demands for the Social Security change.

The timing of those news reports was around the same time as Rubio's afternoon tweet. Republicans appeared to be in damage-control mode about the suggestion that they would be reducing grannies' Social Security checks in favor of lower taxes for the wealthy.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said changes to Social Security would be a political loser for Republicans since the deal at hand was mostly about taxes.

"It's a very bad, losing proposition," McCain said. "What (Democrats) are saying now is, 'Republicans want to preserve tax breaks for rich people and give up seniors' Social Security.' That's the argument they're using. Now whether it's valid or not, it's a winning argument. It should be off the table. And I think most Republicans believe it should be off the table."

Rubio spokesman Alex Conant told PolitiFact that Rubio's tweet was "100 percent true. It was something that Republican leaders had sought but never insisted on, and it was obviously not part of the final agreement (which Marco voted against because it failed to grow the economy or address spending)."

Still, Rubio's tweet did not make it clear that GOP leadership did pursue the Social Security change, at least for a time.

And while Obama has shown a willingness to use chained CPI as one ingredient in deficit reduction, he acknowledges that it isn't popular with seniors or his own party. Obama has said it's a concession he was willing to offer as part of a deal where both sides would compromise to reduce the deficit.

We rate Rubio's claim Half True.

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