By Mike Lillis - 07/19/11 05:25 PM EDT
The second-ranking House Democrat on Tuesday threw his weight behind the party's blanket opposition to entitlement benefit cuts in a debt-ceiling deal.
Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said it was the consensus of Democrats to oppose any benefit cuts under Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as lawmakers haggle over how to hike the debt limit and rein in deficit spending.
The comments represent a subtle but significant change in Hoyer's approach to the negotiating table. As recently as last week, the Democratic whip was being careful not to rule out any policy options during the contentious debt talks — a position shared by President Obama.
"Democrats have said that everything needs to be on the table," Hoyer said last week, "and have put everything on the table."
By going on the record opposing entitlement benefit cuts, Hoyer has aligned himself with more liberal House Democrats like Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who has been clear from the start of the debate that she's open to entitlement reforms, but not benefit cuts.
"We must protect Medicare and Social Security," Pelosi told reporters last week. "We will not support cuts."
House Republican leaders have scheduled a vote Tuesday on their "cut, cap and balance" proposal, which would hinge a $2.4 trillion debt-ceiling hike on passage of a constitutional amendment barring deficit spending.
Supporters of the proposal, championed by the conservative Republican Study Committee, say it's vital if Congress wants to get serious about eliminating deficits and chipping away at the nation's $14.3 trillion debt.
“Right now we’re making sure we don’t default, but it’s equally important to send the signal that we are actually going to do something meaningful to address this [deficit] problem,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Tuesday during a press conference.
But Democrats — including many Blue Dogs who support the notion of a balanced-budget amendment — have hammered the GOP proposal. They note that it would require two-thirds of Congress to hike taxes or eliminate corporate tax loopholes, while requiring only a simple majority to cut entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security.
"This is not your garden-variety balanced-budget amendment," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the senior Democrat on the Budget Committee, told reporters Tuesday. "This is … an attempt to manipulate the Constitution of the United States to make it easier to end the Medicare guarantee than to close corporate tax loopholes."
Democrats also reject a provision capping annual federal spending at 18 percent of GDP, a level not achieved since 1966, Van Hollen said. By creating such a cap as baby boomers begin retiring en masse, Van Hollen warned, "you are guaranteeing deep cuts to Medicare and Social Security."
The Treasury Department has given lawmakers until Aug. 3 before the government begins defaulting on its obligations.
Hoyer accused the Republicans of frittering valuable time on a balanced-budget amendment that has little chance of passing the Senate.
"Default is not an option," Hoyer said, "but we … sit here on Tuesday fiddling with a bill that will not pass while the flames of default lick at our heels."
The House vote is scheduled for Tuesday evening.