Feingold rips Pelosi for willingness to consider entitlement cuts

A liberal stalwart is making a surprise attack on Nancy Pelosi, accusing the House minority leader of signaling “a disturbing potential willingness” to slash entitlement programs that Democrats consider sacred.

Former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) on Thursday sent out an email through his Progressives United advocacy group criticizing Pelosi for saying she would support the Simpson-Bowles deficit plan, which called for using cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security to close the nation’s budget gap.

“Recently, Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has signaled a disturbing potential willingness to adopt a plan that could slash these benefits. And it follows a pattern: Too many House Democrats, including Steny Hoyer, are already on board,” Feingold wrote in the email, which directs respondents to a petition.

“Cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security benefits are unacceptable, and they shouldn't be put on the table by Democrats for any reason — including cynical, political ones. Leader Pelosi must stand up for these crucial programs.”

Pelosi took heat from some liberal groups for saying she would have supported the $4 trillion Simpson-Bowles plan if it came to a vote on the House floor. She voted last month against a budget alternative modeled on the proposal, calling it a “caricature” of the original plan, which emerged from a commission created by President Obama. “If it were actually Simpson-Bowles, I would have voted for it,” Pelosi said after the vote.

The comments highlighted the evolution Pelosi has made on the idea of a deficit “grand bargain” that includes benefit cuts to Medicare and Social Security. In late 2010, she condemned a draft version of the Simpson-Bowles plan as “unacceptable” but did not repeat that critique of the commission’s final product or of the proposals that Obama made to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) during negotiations last summer.

Throughout the onerous talks over a deficit deal tied to raising the debt ceiling, Pelosi vowed that Democrats would not accept benefit cuts but could countenance changes to the entitlement programs that did not hurt beneficiaries.

Feingold’s missive was striking for its harsh tone. The email included a photo of an angry-looking Pelosi similar to ones that conservatives have used to demonize the former Speaker in their fundraising efforts.

Feingold lost his bid for a fourth Senate term in 2010, but he remains a darling of the left. Pelosi supporters were apoplectic on Thursday and appeared taken aback by Feingold’s attack on a woman who is herself a favorite of liberals.

In a Twitter message on Thursday, Pelosi responded to Feingold without mentioning him by name: “ICYMI I've spent my career protecting Social Security, Medicare & Medicaid from GOP attacks — nothing's changed, I will continue fighting,” she wrote.

A senior Democratic aide and Pelosi supporter went much further, denouncing the Feingold e-mail as a desperate bid for donations.

“Anyone who questions Leader Pelosi’s commitment to seniors and persons with disabilities, their benefits or these initiatives is either looking for a fight that doesn't exist or just plain wrong,” the aide told The Hill on the condition of anonymity. “Who led the fight against [President George W.Bush]’s Social Security privatization scheme? Who is leading the fight against the Republican-Ryan plan to end Medicare guarantee, reduce benefits and shift costs to seniors? Russ Feingold knows the answer is Nancy Pelosi and he should spend his resources going after those who truly want to dismantle these programs.”

A spokesman for Progressives United noted that the e-mail was not soliciting donations but rather urging supporters to sign a petition.

This is not the first time Feingold has angered fellow Democrats. In May 2011, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said it was "discouraging" that Feingold urged his supporters to "shame" McCaskill and other Democrats who had voiced skepticism about a new Obama proposal to require more disclosure in campaign financing.