A Republican ad attacking Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas says he “voted to give Social Security benefits to illegal immigrants.” Actually, what Pryor voted for wouldn’t have paid a penny to any immigrant while here illegally.
The ad also claims he voted to “give members of Congress special benefits” to buy health insurance. Actually, the benefits are no more “special” than those of all other federal employees. And Pryor didn’t vote to “give” them; he voted against a partisan proposal to take them away.
The ad is the work of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which started airing it Aug. 19.
‘Benefits to Illegal Immigrants’
The claim about giving benefits to those illegally living in the United States is an old distortion that we debunked back in October 2006, when the NRSC and others were using it to attack Democrats who had supported that year’s immigration bill, which passed the Senate with wide bipartisan support but died in the House. We later put the claim on our list of the “Whoppers of 2006.”
The vote the NRSC cited — then and now — wasn’t a vote to give immigrants who are in the country illegally anything they would not be entitled to under current law. Rather, it was a vote to kill a Republican amendment that would have stripped those gaining legal status under the proposed immigration bill of a right they already had. That is, the right of anyone gaining citizenship or legal status to get credit toward future Social Security benefits based on taxes paid while working in the U.S. without legal permission.
At the time, proponents of the amendment argued that it would prevent those gaining legal status under the immigration bill from being rewarded for illegal activity. The amendment’s author, Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, said during debate: “People who broke the law to come here and broke the law to work here can benefit from their conduct to collect Social Security.”
On the other hand, opponents called Ensign’s amendment punitive. “[E]veryone this amendment would affect will be legal residents under the terms of the bill,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. “Those are the hard-working men and women this amendment seeks to penalize.”
That’s a fair debate. And in the end, the Senate voted 50-49 to kill Ensign’s amendment. But to twist a vote to kill Ensign’s measure into a vote to pay benefits to people while they are here illegally is a gross distortion of the facts.
Worth noting, we think, is that one of those voting against Ensign on this issue was Arizona Sen. John McCain, who went on to became the Republican nominee for president in 2008. McCain, too, was falsely attacked in the 2010 Senate primary for “rewarding illegal aliens with Social Security” benefits. We debunked that attack on the same grounds.
‘Special Benefits Under Obamacare’
Another gross distortion is the ad’s claim that Pryor voted “to give members of Congress special benefits to purchase Obamacare.” That’s absurd. Pryor supported continuing the same employer payments for health insurance that members of Congress have had for many years, and which are the same as those paid for millions of other federal employees, retirees and their families.
The vote in question came during the final hours of the partisan maneuvering that resulted in last year’s 16-day government shutdown. In a straight party-line vote, Pryor joined 51 other Democrats (and two independents) to reject a House-passed bill that would have delayed implementation of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate for a full year in return for providing funding to keep the federal government open through Dec. 15. It also contained a provision that would strip lawmakers and aides of their long-standing health care benefits.
But there’s nothing “special” about those benefits, as we pointed out a few weeks prior to the vote when some Republicans started claiming it was a “special subsidy.” The Office of Personnel Management pays an average of 72 percent (but no more than 75 percent) of the private health insurance premiums for federal workers under the Federal Employees Health Benefits program, which until this year also covered members of Congress and their staffs.
But to avoid another bogus criticism — that the Democrats’ 2010 health care bill would somehow have “exempted” members of Congress — the health care law requires House and Senate members and employees to purchase their health insurance through the ACA’s new insurance exchanges, rather than through the FEHB. The Office of Personnel Management proposed to continue the same employer payments when congressional members and aides moved from the FEHB to the new exchanges. “The amount of the employer contribution toward their Exchange premiums is no more than would otherwise be made toward coverage under the FEHB Program,” OPM stated.
One Out of Three
The final claim in the ad is that Pryor “voted against a balanced budget amendment.” That’s true; he did, on March 2, 2011.
For the record, what Pryor voted against was a nonbinding measure that said simply: “It is the sense of the Senate that Congress should pass and the States should agree to an amendment to the Constitution requiring a Federal balanced budget.” And the measure failed, even though it received 58 votes, because that fell short of the 60 required for passage. Pryor was among the 40 senators, all Democrats except for two independents, who voted against.
So of the three claims made by this ad, only one is factually accurate. And while batting .333 may get a baseball player into the Hall of Fame, we think it qualifies a political ad-maker for another hall entirely.
— Brooks Jackson