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The fiscal cliff negotiations are now over, but while they were happening, there were lots of accusations and finger-pointing.
President Barack Obama and Senate Republicans finally struck a deal early in the morning on New Year’s Day to avoid going over the fiscal cliff, with senators voting 89-8 in favor. But a much-talked about Florida senator with presidential aspirations voted no: Marco Rubio.
Amid home stretch negotiations, Rubio took to the online messaging service Twitter to tell people what was happening. On the afternoon of Sunday, 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.
Krugman concluded that Rubio’s words revealed that a "grand bargain" between the two parties just won’t work: "You can’t make big deals with a totally untrustworthy negotiating partner," he said.
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.
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," and it would be a new method for calculating cost-of-living increases for Social Security. 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.
Although painful for politicians clamoring for the senior vote, switching to chained CPI has drawn support from many 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.
Obama’s view on chained CPI
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 many Democrats -- including Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, and the AARP pushed back. When Obama released his deficit-reduction plan in September 2011 a year before he would face voters, it did not include the change.
But post-election, 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, 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. What I'm not willing to do is to have the entire burden of deficit reduction rest on the shoulders of seniors, making students pay higher student loan rates, ruining our capacity to invest in things like basic research that help our economy grow. Those are the things that I'm not willing to do...."
So Obama supported chained CPI as a concession he was willing to make in order to get Republicans to make concessions on things Obama wanted. (We contacted the White House for additional comment on this point and did not get a response.)
So was chained CPI part of negotiations?
During the final weekend of backroom negotiations on the fiscal cliff, multiple news reports said that Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell included the chained CPI in an offer. The Los Angeles Times wrote that McConnell included it in his proposal on the evening of Saturday, Dec. 29 -- and it appeared to unravel within 24 hours.
The reports we read -- in both liberal and conservative media -- said Democrats were bashing the proposal, while some said Republicans were "insisting" or "demanding" that chained CPI be included.
At some point Sunday afternoon, though, Republicans dropped their demands for the Social Security change.
The timing of those news reports were 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.
A reporter asked Sen. John McCain why McConnell made the proposal if Republicans were against it. McCain, R-Ariz., responded bluntly: "Damned if I know."
McCain 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."
Multiple news reports said that McConnell proposed chained CPI but that Republicans revolted and immediately squashed the idea. So why did Rubio tweet that "Report that #GOP insisting on changes to Social Security as part of #fiscalcliff false"?
Rubio spokesman Alex Conant told PolitiFact in an email: "Marco’s tweet is 100% 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). I’m honestly surprised that something so obviously true would warrant a fact-check from you guys."
On Dec. 30, two days before Rubio voted against the fiscal cliff package, he tweeted: "Report that #GOP insisting on changes to Social Security as part of #fiscalcliff false. BTW those changes are supported by @barackobama."
Actually, Republicans had asked for the changes earlier in the negotiations, but dropped the demand later when they decided it was a political loser. Rubio’s tweet did not make it clear that GOP leadership did pursue the Social Security change, at least for a time.
Rubio also stated "BTW those changes are supported by @barackobama." Obama has shown a willingness to use chained CPI as one ingredient in deficit reduction, though he acknowledges that it isn’t popular with seniors or his own party. Obama has also said it was 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.
Twitter, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, Dec. 30, 2012
New York Times The Conscience of a Liberal, "Instant backstabbing,"Dec. 31, 2012
U.S. Senate, H.R. 8, Jan. 1, 2013
National Journal, "Chained CPI could relieve the national debt. So what is it?"Dec. 12, 2012
Tampa Bay Times The Buzz blog, "Rubio one of few Republicans to vote against fiscal cliff," Jan. 1, 2013
Washington Post The Wonk Blog, "Everything you need to know about chained CPI in one post,"Dec. 11, 2012
National Journal, "Progressives slam chained CPI plan,"Dec. 19, 2012
Washington Post, "Obama, Boehner move closer to cliff deal,"Dec. 17, 2012
Wall Street Journal, "The conscience of a Florida conservative," March 13, 2010
POLITICO, "Many Democrats unhappy with CPI offer,"Dec. 18, 2012
MSNBC, Meet the Press transcript interview with President Barack Obama, Dec. 30, 2012
Business Insider, "Fiscal cliff impasse: No vote tonight: Senate to reconvene at 11 a.m. tomorrow,"Dec. 30, 2012
L.A. Times,"Republicans back off plan to trim social security,"Dec. 30, 2012
Talking Points Memo, "McConnell reaches out for help from Biden in waning hours of budget fight,"Dec. 30, 2012
The Hill, "GOP senators walking away from Social security demand,"Dec. 30, 2012
NPR, "With fiscal cliff around the corner, Senate adjourns for the night,"Dec. 30, 2012
Washington Post, "Senate negotiators yet to reach ‘fiscal cliff’ deal as clocks wind down,"Dec. 30, 2012
CNN, "Fiscal cliff’ talks stall in final hours,"Dec. 30, 2012
Huffington Post, "Fiscal cliff: GOP gives in on social security cuts in stalled talks,"Dec. 30, 2012
Fox News, "Tick tock: The final hours of the Senate fiscal crisis,"Dec. 30, 2012
New York Times, "Day of seesaw talks produces no accord on fiscal cliff," Dec. 30, 2012
Roll Call,"Chained CPI’ gone for now but likely to rear up again,"Dec. 30, 2012
Huffington Post, "Fiscal cliff: Senate remains deadlocked, Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid say,’’Dec. 30, 2012
L.A. Times, "No program is sacred in deficit talks," Accessed in Nexis, July 8, 2011
Boston Globe, "Seniors to fight attempt to change social security," Oct. 28, 2011
Associated Press, "Dems not as willing to compromise since Obama win," Accessed in Nexis, Nov. 18, 2012
National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform,"The moment of Truth," December 2010
Center on Budget Policy and Priorities, "Chained CPI can be part of a balanced deficit-reduction package, under certain conditions," Feb. 22, 2012
The Heritage Foundation, "Social security’s COLA needs to be more accurate," July 11, 2011
AEI, "A CPI-fix for the fiscal cliff?" Dec. 13, 2012
AEI, "Major changes to Social Security are needed,"Jan. 2, 2013
Factcheck.org, "Chained explained,"Dec. 11, 2012
YouTube, Sen. Rubio’s constituent mailbox: Social Security, July 14, 2011
Interview, Alex Conant, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, Jan. 3, 2012
Interview, Andrew Biggs, scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, Jan. 3, 2012
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