Younger workers would face higher retirement ages and wealthier Americans would see their Social Security paychecks trail their less affluent neighbors under a plan proposed Tuesday by Sen. Marco Rubio.
Rubio, a first-term Republican senator from Florida who is outlining a policy agenda as he weighs a presidential bid, also proposed allowing all Americans to join federal retirement accounts. He vowed to protect benefits for older Americans but he added that changes were needed if the system is to survive.
"The Social Security trust fund is drying up," Rubio said, referring to money collected to pay certain benefits.
He said the safety net for retirees will run into debt in 2033 if changes are not made. "This is not a scare tactic. ... It is a mathematical certainty if things remain unchanged."
Democrats said the Rubio proposal is one similar to Republican Mitt Romney proposed when he unsuccessfully ran for president in 2012.
"Sen. Rubio's plan is just the latest example of the Republican Party's out-of-touch policies that benefit a few instead of extending opportunity for all," Democratic National Committee spokesman Michael Czin said.
Rubio is working to build his policy credentials after a bipartisan immigration plan he helped push through the Senate stalled in the House and caused a backlash from conservatives. Trying to shake that sting and looking ahead to an expected 2016 campaign, Rubio has turned to policy proposals on poverty, higher education and economic growth in recent speeches.
Rubio's retirement prescriptions come just days after he had a private audience with the Republican National Committee in Memphis, Tennessee, and made his first trip to early-nominating New Hampshire as a potential White House contender.
At the same time, Rubio has been bulking up his political team and working to help candidates on the ballots in 2014, including those in Iowa, which hosts the lead-off presidential caucuses.
Rubio's speech promised that his plan would not affect older Americans, with many of them nervous as they approach retirement. With so many retirees and those near retirement as constituents in senior-rich Florida, Rubio is mindful of their interests as he prepares for the national political stage.
"The answer is to gradually increase the retirement age for future retirees to account for the rise in life expectancy," Rubio said.
Rubio did not specify a new retirement age.
He also said wealthier Americans rely less on Social Security than poorer Americans and could deal with their payments growing less quickly. "This isn't a cut. It is simply a reduction in how fast the benefit will increase," Rubio said.
"Social Security was never designed to be the sole source of retirement income," he said.
Rubio's proposal would make the federal retirement program that Congress uses available beyond government employees. His proposal would make it easier for workers whose employers don't offer retirement plans, such as 401(k)s and other investment programs. Rubio says his proposals would make it easier for lower- and middle-class voters to plan for their older years.
Specifically, Rubio called for opening the federal Thrift Savings Plan to all Americans. The program, which currently covers more than 4 million civilian and uniformed government workers, has more than $350 billion in its accounts.
But unlike private accounts, the Thrift Savings Plan has lower costs for fund management and is exempt from many regulations commercial programs must follow.
"Opening Congress' retirement plan to the American people will allow us to bring the prospect of a secure, comfortable and independent retirement into the reach of millions of people," Rubio said.
But Rubio's plan would also increase the retirement age for younger workers — who are expected to live longer — while protecting those aged 55 and over. Older workers could still expect to retire as they had planned.
His plan would also suspend the Social Security payroll taxes on those aged 65 or older who continue to work. That move could help him appeal to older workers of all types who choose to stay on the job after they are eligible to receive retirement benefits.
"These seniors have already paid their fair share, and we shouldn't punish them for choosing to keep working rather than immediately cashing in," Rubio said.