Oct. 3 (Bloomberg) -- Republican Rand Paul said eligibility changes need to be made for the Social Security program, including a possible increase in the age for receiving benefits, as he debated today his Democratic opponent for a U.S. Senate seat in Kentucky.
“You’re going to have to have eligibility changes for the younger people,” Paul said during the debate televised nationally on “Fox News Sunday” when asked if raising the retirement age for Social Security was one way to reduce the federal budget deficit. He said he wouldn’t back making that change for Americans already participating in the program.
Paul, 47, and Democrat Jack Conway, 41 are competing to replace retiring Republican Senator Jim Bunning, 78, in the Nov. 2 election. Their debate illustrated the different campaign themes being stressed by many Republican and Democratic candidates on this year’s ballot, with Paul framing the election as a referendum on President Barack Obama’s policies and Conway focusing on state issues.
“Do you support the president’s agenda or do you not support it?” Paul said when asked to describe the choice for voters. “I think his agenda’s wrong for America.”
Conway, Kentucky’s attorney general, offered himself as someone who has “stood up for the people” of his state. “I’m not saying Dr. Paul is crazy, I think some of his ideas are out of the mainstream and they’re out of touch with the values of normal Kentuckians.”
Discussing his own positions, he said, “I’m certainly not going to be to the left of Barack Obama.”
Polls have shown Paul leading the race. He is the son of Representative Ron Paul, a Texas Republican who sought the party’s presidential nomination in 2008 and long has advocated abolishing the Federal Reserve Board.
Rand Paul won his Republican primary race in May against a competitor backed by Kentucky’s Republican establishment, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and with the help of Tea Party activists. Paul said today that, should he win in November, he would support retaining McConnell as the Senate Republican leader.
In addition to Paul’s win, Tea Party-backed Senate candidates have toppled contenders backed by many Republican officials in Nevada, Delaware, Alaska, Utah and Colorado.
The Tea Party is intent on shrinking the federal government, lowering taxes and rolling back the health-care law pushed by Obama and passed earlier this year by the Democratic-controlled Congress. Those topics have been central to this year’s campaign, in which polls show Democrats in a struggle to retain their control of the Senate and the House of Representatives.
“It’s not a revenue problem, it’s a spending problem,” Paul said in today’s debate as he emphasized his commitment to reducing the budget deficit, projected to reach $1.34 trillion this year.
“Republicans have failed us on the debt, and so have the Democrats,” he said. He also said that as a lawmaker, he would introduce a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget.
He endorsed changes in eligibility requirements for Social Security, as well as for the Medicare program, when pressed for specifics on trimming federal spending.
“I think all younger people, if they’re honest and will admit to it and have an adult discussion and not demagogue the issue, will admit that younger people will have to have different rules” for receiving benefits through those programs, he said.
The current age for qualifying for full Social Security benefits is now 67 for those born in 1960 or later, according to the Social Security Administration. Americans who are at least 62 years old are eligible to receive partial benefits.
According to Bloomberg data published Sept. 9, Social Security paid $57.4 billion in retirement, survivors’ and disability benefits in August, providing an average payment of $1,072 to 53.6 million beneficiaries.
Conway said that, if elected, the first bill he would introduce would allow for the bulk purchase of prescription drugs under Medicare. He has said the legislation would save the government about $200 billion in 10 years.
Conway also responded to attacks from Paul, who said the Democratic nominee has supported cap-and-trade legislation in which companies would buy and sell the right to pollute. “I’m against cap and trade,” Conway said. “I’ve been consistent in my position saying I’m going to stand up for Kentucky coal.”
In races across the country, candidates have been haggling over extending income-tax cuts enacted under former President George W. Bush that are set to expire Dec. 31.
Obama and most Democrats favor extending the cuts for individuals earning up to $200,000 a year and couples earning up to $250,000, while allowing reductions for higher-income Americans to lapse. They say the U.S. can’t afford tax cuts for top earners amid record budget deficits.
Republicans and some Democrats want to extend the tax cuts for all income levels, arguing that letting taxes rise for the top earners would hurt job creation as the U.S economy seeks to rebound from the worst recession since the Great Depression.
“It’s no time to be raising taxes,” Conway said today. He said he was among the Democrats who supported the Bush tax cuts when they were passed. “And I think now we just ought to extend them.”
Republicans need a net gain of 10 seats to win a Senate majority and 39 seats to take control of the House.
Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican who heads the party’s Senate campaign committee, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program that “this is going to be a wave election and it’s going to be a referendum on the on the unpopular policies coming out of Washington.”
He said the result will be a “tsunami” for Republicans. “I don’t know how high or how wide that tsunami will be, but it will be sizable,” he said.
Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with the Democrats, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program that Republicans are obstructionists intent on preventing economic gains. “They do not want America to succeed,” Sanders said. “Gaining power is their major initiative.”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva in Washington at email@example.com