Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says he's not willing to consider changes to Social Security for another 20 years – when he's 91 -- but the entitlement program for seniors is likely to be in crisis by then.
Despite the growing drumbeat in Washington for entitlement reform to tackle the federal deficit, Reid said Wednesday evening that changes to the program are not something he will even consider talking about, much less acting on.
"Two decades from now, I'm willing to take a look at it, but I'm not willing to take a look at it right now," he told MSNBC. "It is not in crisis at this stage. Leave Social Security alone. We have a lot of other places we can look that is in crisis. But Social Security is not."
While Social Security is technically flush with a $2.5 trillion surplus -- amassed since the retirement program was last overhauled in the 1980s -- that money is projected to run dry in 2037, six years after Reid says he's willing to consider changes, and that's only if the government pays back its IOUs after raiding the trust fund.
By 2037, Social Security would collect enough in payroll taxes to pay out about 78 percent of benefits, according to the Social Security Administration.
Many conservatives don't trust the $2.5 trillion surplus because it has been borrowed over the years by the federal government and spent on other programs. The Treasury Department in return has issued bonds to Social Security, guaranteeing repayment with interest.
Some prominent conservative commentators call those bonds "worthless."
Citing the White House Office of Management and Budget, Washington Post columnist and Fox News contributor Charles Krauthammer wrote the bonds are nothing more than promises that the Treasury can deliver only by raising taxes, borrowing money or reducing benefits.
"The lockbox, the balances, the little pieces of paper, amount to nothing," he wrote.
Many deficit hawks eager to get the nation's fiscal house in order are pushing for immediate changes. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. chairman of the House Budget Committee, has released a plan that would offer workers under 55 the option of investing over a third of their current Social Security taxes in personal retirement accounts.
Even President Obama's much-ballyhooed deficit commission last year made recommendations to raise the Social Security retirement age to 68 by 2050 and 69 by 2075 and reduce future increases in benefits.
But Obama ignored this proposal in his budget. And Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has been outspoken in his defense of preserving the integrity of Social Security. Most recently, he fired back at House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's statement that "it is very difficult to balance the budget in the next 10 years without cutting seniors' benefits now."
"Rep. Cantor's claim that we need to cut seniors' Social Security checks today to balance the budget is flat-out wrong," he said in a statement last week. "Blaming Social Security for our deficit is nothing but an ideological attempt to slash benefits and privatize the program."
Social Security represents nearly 20 percent of all federal spending this fiscal year, and that is expected to grow as more baby boomers retire.
In 2010, more than 54 million Americans were receiving Social Security benefits – with monthly payments averaging $1,076 -- and 16.5 million more are projected to receive them over the next 10 years.
Social Security posted its first deficit last year since the program was last reformed three decades ago. The CBO said at the time that Social Security would post surpluses for a few more years before permanently slipping into deficits in 2016.
But the latest projections show nothing but red ink until the Social Security trust funds are exhausted in 2037.
"Harry Reid is playing politics," Democratic strategist Doug Schoen said. "I was part of efforts in the 1990s to do just that. But it's wrong. We just can't afford it. Harry Reid and the liberal Democrat are pursuing the wrong course."
"Harry Reid and some Republicans and many Democrats are momentarians," Brad Blakeman, former deputy assistant to President George W. Bush said. "They live for the moment. Great societies provide for the moment but plan for the future, and our future demands we tackle the tough problems today and not just react to crises but head off crises."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.