Senator Dick Durbin has been taking a beating in the liberal blogosphere from people who worry that he’s going to sell out Social Security in the “Gang of Six” talks on their forthcoming deficit reduction proposal.
Durbin recently criticized Bernie Sanders for insisting against any cuts to Social Security and seemed to buy into the right’s crisis-crisis-crisis frame, leading some to asume the worst. Some have suggested he’s a “stalking horse” for Obama’s plan to cave on Social Security, and others have wondered whether Durbin is playing the role of “designated liberal” to validate the ultimate plan to cut it.
In this context, some remarks Durbin himself made at a luncheon last week about his role in these talks — remarks that got little attention — seem worth noting. Specifically, he described himself as the person at the “Gang of Six” table who would most reliably protect liberal priorities and the safety net.
“I want to make sure that there is still a safety net when it’s over,” Durbin told reporters at the luncheon, according to a transcript sent my way. “That’s why I want to be at the table.” Durbin also repeately vowed that any deal would still have to protect the “vulnerable,” and insisted his voting record is “left of center” and that he’s “proud of it.”
I’m not saying these comments from Durbin should necessarily negate any concerns people are expressing about the direction of the “Gang of Six” negotiations. I wasn’t crazy about Durbin’s recent claim that the “Gang of Six” should seek middle ground between Obama’s and Ryan’s proposals. But I wonder if there is something a bit more complex going on from Durbin than first meets the eye.
My understanding of the dynamic here is that Dems like Durbin believe that the only conceivable way to keep Republicans at the table discussing increased revenues from the wealthy is to keep unspecified “changes” to Social Security on the table, too. Dems believe that if they rule out any changes at all to Social Security, it gives Republicans on the “Gang of Six” an easy opening to walk away from high end tax hikes. I’m not agreeing with that assessment, just reporting it.
The bottom line is we don’t yet know what Durbin will agree to on Social Security. As David Dayen notes, Obama is now saying the right things, insisting that the program is not a driver of deficits and shouldn’t be part of the budget debate, and suggesting he will only support minor changes, such as raising the payroll cap. And as I noted above, Durbin is vowing — in a general sense — to represent core liberal priorities at the “Gang of Six” table. You could, I suppose, read that as a sign that his role will ultimately be to put a liberal stamp of approval on changes to the program that are unacceptable to the left.
But you could also read it as a sign that Durbin sees his own role differently — he’s balancing the need to keep Republicans at the table with the need to keep the safety net fundamentally intact in a way that liberals can accept. At a minimum, Durbin’s vow gives us something to hold him to later.
UPDATE: It’s also worth noting that Durbin recently said: “Social Security does not add one penny to the deficit.”