The narrative has become all too familiar. What legislators might once have treated as a routine vote to extend the solvency of a pre-existing government fund becomes a polarizing issue. (Just see last year’s federal government shutdown.) And that's likely to be the fate of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)the taxpayer-funded benefits available to the 8.9 million disabled Americans who qualify. Unless Congress reallocates Social Security funds or increases the percentage of payroll taxes that go to cover SSDI, most estimates predict the program’s trust fund reserves will run out by 2016, leaving it to rely solely on tax revenue and to fall short of the necessary funding by about 20 percentthus threatening the well-being of millions who rely on SSDI for food, medical bills, and other living expenses.

According to Rebecca Vallas, associate director of the Center for American Progress’s Poverty to Prosperity Project, the deadline for taking action is “whenever the reserves in the trust fund are depleted”although the exacttime that happens is unclear. A deadline of 2016, though, would seem to give Congress at least some time for action. But SSDI has become a political flashpoint, so its fate will likely come down to which party blinks first. Many Republicans are wary of suggesting cuts to popular retirement benefitseven though they have, in the past, advocated for a privatizationof the social safety netso are instead targeting SSDI. Just as they did with the phantom welfare queens of decades past, Republicans argue that SSDI beneficiaries are the perpetrators of the waste and abuse they claim afflicts the entire system. And while the debate is, on the surface, about SSDI, it’s really about the whole of Social Security. By attacking SSDI specifically, Republicans seem to think they can start dismantling the larger program without openly targeting it.

This in turn has pushed Democrats up for election this November to be markedly outspoken on their support for the expansion of Social Security benefits. The partisan politicization of Social Security is nothing new, but Democratic observers see the willingness to champion the program by party candidatesrather than simply defend it from further cutsas a favorable development (even as Republican tactics for dismantling it become ever more oblique).

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