Long-simmering tensions between the White House and congressional Democrats on how best to address the country’s debt boiled over Friday, with leaders and rank-and-file members alike fuming at reports that President Obama is mulling cuts to Social Security and Medicare as part of a bipartisan debt-limit deal.
“What I’ve heard from people you might not expect to hear it from ... is if they bring to the Senate a [deal] that really comes down heavy on working families and children and the elderly and they expect me to matter-of-factly vote for it, they’ll have another thing coming,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said Friday morning.
In a Friday afternoon news conference, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), emerging from what she called a “lively” House Democratic Caucus meeting, declared that Democrats “would not reduce the deficit or subsidize tax cuts for the rich on the backs of America’s seniors.”
But Pelosi appeared to crack the door for a deal after she met with Vice President Biden and President Obama at the White House on Friday.
“I’m still optimistic that we can find a place that we can come together,” she said. “It has to be reflective of our values, because 10 years of a budget has a very serious impact on the future.”
Sanders, one of the Senate’s most liberal members and a vocal opponent of the inclusion of entitlement cuts in any debt-limit deal, spoke out against the proposed cuts on a conference call with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).
The call included speakers representing more than 300 liberal organizations, including national labor unions, the National Organization for Women, MoveOn.org and the Alliance for Retired Americans.
“There’s been very little conversation between the White House and the Senate about this, and I think they’re making a grievous mistake if they think they can just present anything to us and assume that because we’re Democrats, we’ll go along with what the president has capitulated to,” Whitehouse said.
The Rhode Island Democrat added that as Obama prepares to hold a second meeting with congressional leaders Sunday, “it’s important in the next several days to send as strong a signal down Pennsylvania Avenue as we can.”
Furthermore, liberal and labor groups said Friday that they, too, are mobilized to deliver that signal on the 2012 campaign trail. Max Richtman, acting CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security, said that his group is readying a TV ad for late next week and is preparing to deliver nearly 700,000 petitions to the White House next week voicing opposition to any changes to seniors’ cost-of-living adjustments.
“We’re devoting more resources to this than we ever have before,” Richtman said.
The anger among Democrats surged after the news leaked mid-week that Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) were attempting to craft a sweeping deal that could cut as much as $4 trillion from the deficit by reforming Social Security, heretofore a sacred cow to liberal Democrats, and overhauling the tax code, likely lowering overall rates but also raising some revenue. But Boehner said Friday that there was “no imminent deal” leading up to a weekend summit with the president.
The White House and congressional leaders must reach a deal by Aug. 2 to extend the borrowing power of the U.S. government or it will default, according to Treasury officials.
Some House Democrats are taking a “once bitten, twice shy” approach to the current dilemma. They point to the White House’s handling late last year of a deal that extended the Bush-era tax cuts — a move that especially chagrined liberal members, who felt the package was unduly generous to higher earners — and worry that they will again be asked to provide the votes for a final deal to which they haven’t really contributed.
And more than one month after House Democrats won a special election in upstate New York that largely hinged on House Republicans’ plans to overhaul Medicare, some Democrats and interest group leaders are renewing their argument that, as Whitehouse said Friday, “the public is with us on this.”
“I just have two words I hope people will keep in mind: Kathy Hochul,” said NOW President Terry O’Neill, referring to the Democrat who prevailed in the New York special election.
“I think that there was a lot of unhappiness on the Democratic side when (reports that Social Security may be on the table) came out, and from what I understand, it blindsided the leadership. They didn’t really realize it was coming out,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.).
“And there’s all kinds of theories as to why it came out. Some people think it wasn’t the president; it was some of his people wanting to position themselves or whatever. But it wasn’t a good thing.”
Although Pelosi spoke strongly Friday against entitlement benefits in a debt deal, she suggested that there could be some possible changes if the funding returned to the entitlement programs rather than strictly toward debt-cutting.
“There are many initiatives that some of us tried to effect in the health-care bill ... whether it’s dual-eligibles, not to get too technical about it, but giving the secretary the ability to negotiate for lower prices on pharmaceuticals,” she explained. “That’s a cost savings, that’s not a benefit cut, it’s a cost-saving cut to Medicare.
“And if that were to be part of a global grand plan, we’d want assurances that that money would be pooled back into Medicare, not to subsidize a tax cut for the wealthiest person in America.”
But generally speaking, Democratic members and aides described a growing sentiment among the caucus to put pressure on the House Republican majority to pass any debt-limit deal on their own if it goes too far in cutting spending and if it overhauls entitlement programs.
“I feel that they have the majority here and they need to come across with 218 votes for whatever deal that’s cut,” said Engel, who was one of the 112 Democrats that opposed last year’s tax-cut package.
“I don’t think that we should let any of them get off the hook and provide the votes to pass it. This is their baby — let them put up the votes. ... If it’s going to be too lopsided on the cutting side, yeah, I think we should reject it.”
Friday evening, the co-chairmen of the Congressional Progressive Caucus weighed in with a letter to Pelosi praising the Democratic leader's “unwavering defense” of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and pledging to vote against any deal that would include benefit cuts.
“We are united as Democrats in saying that it’s time to stand up to the Republican hostage-taking,” reads the letter from Reps. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.). “We will not be forced to vote for a 'final agreement' that we do not agree to — and that the American people do not agree to.”
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