Liberal lawmakers see unlikely ally in GOP on entitlement cuts

Liberals are relying on conservative Republicans — their fiercest political enemies — to prevent entitlement cuts backed by President Obama from gaining ground.

With Obama pushing for cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, the best chance liberals have of stopping those spending reductions could be the GOP’s blanket opposition to higher taxes. 

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Although GOP leaders insist that entitlement cuts should be a big part of any sweeping deficit deal, they have been unwilling to concede to Obama’s demand for higher taxes to get them. 

The odd dynamic will be highlighted this week when the president introduces a 2014 budget plan said to include Social Security cuts that Democratic leaders — most notably House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — have said they’d consider.

The proposal has both infuriated liberals and left them almost grateful that Republicans are standing in the way. 

“They won’t give, and that just creates the situation where nothing moves,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said of the GOP’s stand against new revenues. “And if nothing moves, then you can’t put Medicare or Social Security on the table. ... It’s an interesting way to look at it, but there might be more than a kernel of truth in that.”

Obama has acknowledged that his entitlement reforms are dead on arrival if GOP leaders continue to oppose any new tax increases. In a meeting with House Democrats at the Capitol last month, the president told wary liberals that they “may not have to worry about it,” according to Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).

In this respect, Republicans are simultaneously the driving force behind Obama’s offer of entitlement cuts and the reason those cuts likely aren’t going anywhere.

The centerpiece of Obama’s proposal — to be included in his 2014 budget blueprint on Wednesday — is a change in the way inflation is calculated for determining payments under a number of federal programs, including Social Security. That shift to a new formula, called chained CPI, would reduce benefit payments over the long term and has incited a firestorm of criticism from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and a growing list of liberal lawmakers.

“No matter what you call it, a chained CPI is a cut to Social Security benefits,” Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) said Monday.

Liberal groups are threatening action against Democrats that support Obama’s budget. 

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, for instance, is threatening to help organize primary opponents against any Democrat who backs Obama’s chained CPI plan.

“We’re making very clear that any Democrat who supports Social Security benefit cuts should prepare for a primary fight,” said Adam Green, the group’s co-founder. “If you support Social Security benefit cuts, you’re not a Democrat. There’s no bigger issue, there’s no keeping our powder dry.”

GOP leaders have supported entitlement cuts like chained CPI, but they’re openly skeptical that Obama is serious about enacting those changes. Indeed, when the news broke Friday that the president intended to include a shift to chained CPI in his impending budget, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) warned that Obama’s deficit offers have “never lived up to his rhetoric.”

“If the president believes these modest entitlement savings are needed to help shore up these programs, there’s no reason they should be held hostage for more tax hikes,” Boehner said.

Liberals are taking Obama’s offers more seriously, with concerns that GOP leaders might “call his bluff” and agree to some tax revenues, leading to the passage of entitlement benefit cuts.

“When the president takes on his closest allies on some elements of entitlement changes, you don’t do that for show,” said Ron Pollack, head of Families USA, a healthcare advocacy group. “It’s not that he’s eager for those entitlement changes, but he does want to get some deal on addressing the federal budget, and he recognizes that it’s a give-and-take process.”

To be sure, not all liberals see Republicans as any kind of ally in the entitlement fight.

“I’m not that sophisticated to believe that by blocking what we need in order to bring about a [balanced] budget, that they also were stopping some terrible things from happening,” said Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.).

But other liberals reluctantly conceded that Obama, by repeatedly calling for chained CPI, has made that proposal his own, and that only the GOP’s opposition to tax hikes seems to be preventing it from taking effect.

Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, said not only is chained CPI bad public policy, it also undermines Democrats’ political claims that they’re the unwavering champions of the popular benefit.

“If I knew how this would end, I’d be the only one, but I can see this ending in a way where Democrats’ fingerprints are on proposals to cut Social Security. How is that good for the party?” Richtman asked.

“It’s a pretty sad commentary,” he added, “if we’re now counting on Republican intransigence to protect us from cuts in Medicare and Social Security.”


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