Democratic National Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr. suggested Wednesday that Democratic congressional leaders consider eliminating Social Security benefits for people "who have no real need for them."
In a breakfast interview with reporters in Los Angeles, Kirk also suggested that Democratic leaders consider an across-the-board budget freeze for one year--including a cap on Social Security cost-of-living increases--while Congress seeks long-term solutions to the deficit.
Kirk later backed away from his comments after they set off a firestorm among Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill, some of whom said privately that Kirk had undercut them in their debate with Republicans over proposals for controlling Social Security outlays.
Democrats have been assailing President Reagan and Senate Republicans for proposing two weeks ago that Social Security cost-of-living increases be limited to 2 percentage points under the rate of inflation in each of the next three years, with a guarantee of at least a 2% hike each year.
"It is outrageous that the chairman of the Democratic Party is suggesting a means test for Social Security," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles). "The Democratic Party has always supported Social Security as an insurance program, not a welfare program. We promised the American people that if they paid into this system they would be able to draw out of it in retirement and not have to subject themselves to the indignity of having to show whether they need the money or not."
Some Democrats said privately that the idea of a means test for Social Security undermines their effort to broaden the party's appeal to middle-class voters.
California Sen. Alan Cranston, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, said, "I am a Democratic leader that Kirk is apparently referring to and I can tell you that no leaders are going to take his advice on either issue. A means test for Social Security benefits would undermine the long-term support for the program and, as for an across-the-board budget freeze, Social Security should not be included. It has its own separate fund."
Freeze Called Unlikely
Kirk made his comments as House Majority leader Jim Wright was saying in Washington that any deficit reduction package produced by Democrats is unlikely to include a one-year freeze on Social Security benefits. Moreover, Wright said Democrats may offer a budget alternative that would set a minimum on the amount of income tax paid by corporations, despite Reagan's vow that he will veto any new taxes. The Democrats say existing laws allow so many deductions that some of the country's largest and most profitable corporations pay almost no federal income tax.
Kirk's longtime friend, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), declined through a spokesman to comment on the issue. Kirk was chairman of Kennedy's 1980 presidential campaign.
Asked later in the day if he was sticking to his suggestions about changing Social Security, Kirk replied, "Others with responsibility to decide this may dismiss it as out of question, but as we are going through this period of examining the budget we should not be afraid to consider this."
As Democratic reaction built on Capitol Hill, however, Kirk later put out the following statement through his press office at the Democratic National Committee in Washington:
"In a theoretical discussion of budget deficits with reporters, I used ill-advised language that may lead some to an incorrect conclusion about the Democratic Party's position on Social Security. I was wrong. Our party . . . is unalterably opposed to any cuts in Social Security. I should not have mentioned the subject of a means test.
'Never Endorse Cuts'
"Even though some voices in our party have suggested that a means test be discussed or that a freeze on benefits be considered, that is not the position of the Democratic Party, nor should it be. We will never endorse cutting Social Security benefits."
In the breakfast interview, Kirk was asked when the Democrats are going to come up with their own proposal for dealing with the deficit.
He replied: "I think the party really ought to consider a freeze on the budget across the board. . . . I think the budget questions are so serious that if our party is going to lay claim to being the party of the future, this question is going to linger."
Asked if a freeze should include Social Security cost-of-living increases, Kirk said:
"Yes, I think that one thing the Democratic Party should put on the table and really examine and say can we--in terms of eligibility payments and cost of living questions--can we apply the freeze to that?
"Another quotient is need. . . . I think the one question within the Social Security question that ought to be looked at is whether the (cost-of-living increases) and the payments ought to be applied to those who have no real need for them, or at least to examine that question if the freeze were to be imposed for one year.
"All I am saying is if our party is going to . . . examine the budget freely and put all the cards on the table, (it) should include the question of examining the cost of living adjustments and applications to those people where need is not a reality."
Kirk acknowledged that what he was proposing would be a fundamental departure for the Democratic Party, but he said he thinks that the country and its political parties are in a period of transition.
Waxman was one of many Democrats who said Kirk's remarks had undermined the party's attempt to make Social Security a sticky issue for Reagan, who left the impression during last year's presidential campaign that he would not tamper with Social Security benefits.
Throughout Reagan's first term, Social Security was one of the few issues with which Democrats were able to put the President on the defensive, and they had hoped it would prove as useful in this year's fight over the budget.
"Social Security has been a strong issue for Democrats," Waxman said. "The public overwhelmingly supports our position on this in the face of Ronald Reagan's cuts."
Republican Senate Leader Bob Dole of Kansas said Kirk's remarks were a reflection of Democrats being "troubled. They don't have a plan for reducing the deficit."
Sen. Peter Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said, "A freeze (on Social Security cost of living increases) would be realistic. But (there has been) 25 years of broad resistence to means testing. That's not going to happen."
Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey said, "I don't think the means test is going to make it. Social Security is a contract between generations."
Sen. David Boren (D-Okla.) said, "Kirk may have been trying to show that the party had no sacred cows and that maybe Social Security should be considered in a freeze proposal if it were part of a fair plan. But so far what is out there is not fair."