WASHINGTON — When Rep. Donna F. Edwards launched her campaign for Maryland's open Senate seat, she used an introductory video to take a subtle dig at her opponent, promising that she would stand against any attempts to "compromise away" Social Security benefits for seniors.
In the year since, Edwards has used increasingly stronger language to question rival Rep. Chris Van Hollen's commitment to the 81-year-old program, pointing to statements he made four years ago during high-stakes budget negotiations, in which he seemed to indicate he might accept cuts to entitlements as part of a large deficit-reduction deal.
But the record is fuzzier than Edwards sometimes portrays, and a number of observers — including House Democratic leaders — have said repeatedly there is little separating the two Democrats on what has become one of the most substantive policy discussions in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.
"I never heard anybody object to the fact that he was our point person," House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California told The Baltimore Sun on Monday. "He shares the values of our caucus and knows that we view Social Security, Medicare and the Affordable Care Act as pillars."
Throughout the campaign for the Democratic nomination, Edwards has sought to frame herself as more progressive than Van Hollen, and independent analyses often find that the Prince George's County lawmaker is among the most liberal members of the caucus.
Those same analyses generally find Van Hollen is not far behind.
But in a series of recent debates, Edwards has said Van Hollen has "moved his position" on Social Security, and that he was willing to "trade away [the] hard-earned benefit …just to cut a deal."
In a piece posted on the internet site Medium last month, Edwards wrote that Van Hollen "backed a plan that, if enacted, would have cut Social Security benefits."
Her language mirrors that of national progressive groups who criticized Van Hollen's comments at the time, long before Mikulski announced her retirement and the candidates entered the race.
The argument is based on quotes Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, gave to reporters in 2012 as Congress was lurching toward the so-called fiscal cliff — a combination of automatic tax increases and budget cuts.
Van Hollen, a lead negotiator working to avoid that outcome, said repeatedly that a 2010 deficit reduction proposal that included cuts to Social Security should serve as the "framework" for averting the cliff.
The controversial proposal came to be known as the Simpson-Bowles plan after the co-chairs who helped craft it: Alan Simpson, a Republican former senator from Wyoming, and Erskine Bowles, a chief of staff to Democratic President Bill Clinton.
"We're going to see the framework of Simpson-Bowles" in a deal to avert the fiscal cliff, Van Hollen told Bloomberg in 2012. "That mix of cuts, but also revenue, is the right way to go."
But Van Hollen never discussed or embraced the specific cuts to Social Security the proposal called for. He focused on the ratio of spending cuts to tax increases. At the time, Democrats were pushing Republicans to accept higher taxes to address deficits rather than relying solely on spending cuts.
In the full transcript of the interview with Bloomberg, it is apparent that Van Hollen is speaking of the ratio rather than specific policies.
"Their ratio is about $3 in cuts to $1 in revenue, although there are all sorts of baseline and accounting rules that go into that that are really very important, but not really part of the general conversation," Van Hollen said. "So I think the overall architecture of Simpson-Bowles, that mix of cuts but also revenue, is the right way to go."
A month later, Van Hollen specifically cast doubt on the Social Security cuts called for in Simpson-Bowles.
"Well, we need to look at a long-term solution to Social Security," the Montgomery County lawmaker said on MSNBC. "I don't agree with the — their specifics on Social Security."
Edwards' campaign, as well as several progressive groups, have scoffed at the idea that Van Hollen's quotes were ambiguous. Given the context of the negotiations at the time, they say, Van Hollen's words were clear.
"He said it [Simpson-Bowles] was 'the right way to go,'" said Nick Berning, a spokesman for MoveOn.org. "What everybody knew at the time was that Simpson-Bowles was code for 'Republicans will come to the table offering tax increases and Democrats will come to the table offering Social Security.'"
Van Hollen told the Wall Street Journal in 2012 that he was "willing to consider all of these ideas as part of an overall plan."
Among the changes to Social Security included in Simpson-Bowles was the so-called chained-CPI, which aims to slow the growth of Social Security payments by changing how cost-of-living increases are calculated. The plan also called for raising the retirement age from 65 to 69 by 2075.
Pelosi has had close relationships with both Edwards and Van Hollen, and praised them both late Monday.
"I have respect for both candidates," she said. "But I also have respect for what our position has been as a Democratic caucus on these issues."
Van Hollen supporters point to other comments he made, such as when he told The New York Times in 2011 that any adjustments to Social Security should take place on a "separate track" from broader budget negotiations. And they note Van Hollen pushed back when President Barack Obama included chained-CPI in his 2013-14 budget.
Max Richtman, president of the Washington-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare, noted an early 2012 vote in the House of Representatives on a plan similar to Simpson-Bowles. Edwards and Van Hollen both opposed the measure, and it died.
"Whatever he said, that doesn't carry the weight of a vote," Richtman said. "He's been on the right side from our perspective."
Donald Norris, a veteran observer of Maryland politics and director of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's School of Public Policy, said he has heard Edwards' argument on the issue and isn't convinced.
"Policy-wise there is so little difference between the two of them, so she's trying to make a distinction where there's no difference," he said. "This is politics. It's hardball."