By Erik Wasson - 11/28/12 10:00 AM EST
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is turning to an unlikely ally — President Clinton’s former chief of staff — to try to get the White House to put big entitlement changes in a fiscal-cliff deal.
Erskine Bowles, the former co-chairman of Obama’s debt commission, will meet on Wednesday with Boehner and other top Republicans. The GOP is using the occasion to call out liberal Democrats for working against benefit cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
The visit comes at a time when top Republicans believe the negotiations over avoiding the fiscal cliff have become dangerously unbalanced, just weeks before the $600 billion in tax hikes and automatic spending cuts are set to slam the economy.
For Republicans, there has been too much focus put on specifying tax loopholes to close and on Democratic demands for tax-rate increases, and not enough on the liberal refusal to match GOP concessions with spending-cut specifics.
By associating themselves with the centrist Bowles, whom some in the business community had hoped would be named the next Treasury secretary before he ruled that out this month, the GOP can paint Democrats as being out of the mainstream.
“The problem is that congressional Democrats are drawing lines in the sand against the substantial spending cuts and reforms that are crucial to any agreement. We have to highlight the fact that the president’s own party is the roadblock here,” said a House GOP leadership aide.
“Any time he can emphasize to them that we said revenues need to be on the table, they need to say entitlements need to be on the table, certainly that would help the progress,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), a member of the bipartisan Gang of Eight deficit discussion group and a close friend of Boehner.
Democrats argue that Obama has put spending cuts in his budget, including $340 billion in healthcare cost-cutting. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said that despite the rhetoric, the White House is floating cuts behind the scenes.
The Boehner-Bowles meeting is the latest chapter in the GOP’s tortured relationship with the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson deficit plan, which would have cut the deficit by $4 trillion through reforming the tax code and effecting deep cuts to the military.
During the presidential campaign, Ryan lambasted Obama for never embracing the Bowles-Simpson approach, even though Ryan served on the Bowles-Simpson debt commission and voted against the plan.
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Now the GOP is bringing in Bowles but leaving Bowles-Simpson at the door. Co-Chairman and former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) could not join the meeting due to a scheduling conflict.
Aides note that the GOP is still not embracing that plan — which left big health changes off the table and raised $1.8 trillion in revenue compared to current policy.
Instead, the GOP is looking closely at a proposal that Bowles unilaterally made to the failed 2011 deficit supercommittee.
That proposal included only $800 billion in revenue — on top of revenue from economic growth — instead of the $1.8 trillion in Bowles-Simpson.
Bowles also laid out $300 billion in additional discretionary cuts; $600 billion in healthcare savings, including raising the Medicare eligibility age; $300 billion in savings from other mandatory programs such as federal retirement or farm programs; and $200 billion from revising the way inflation is calculated for tax and entitlement benefits.
A source close to Bowles said that he would not be pushing that exact plan during the Wednesday meeting, but would advocate for an eventual grand bargain.
The Bowles solo proposal is not well-liked by prominent Democrats.
“I didn’t agree with it at all. I told him I didn’t agree with it at all. I thought that was not representative of the group effort that Bowles-Simpson represented,” Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said. “Bowles-Simpson had $2 trillion in revenue … what he was talking about, there was $800 billion.”
Its proposal on revising the way inflation is calculated, known as the chained consumer price index (CPI), would lower Social Security payments. Republicans want badly to see it in the deal.
“We need to not miss the opportunity while we are reforming entitlements to make sure that Social Security is solvent for the next 75 years,” Chambliss said.
“You hear we can’t do Social Security. That’s unacceptable … I think we both should adjust the age for retirement; that’s what everybody says needs to be done. I think we should means-test benefits and look at CPI adjustment,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
This flies in the face of the White House position, however.
“We should address the drivers of the deficit, and Social Security currently is not a driver of the deficit,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said this week.
Leading liberal Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said Tuesday that Social Security has to be off the table, but he is open to other entitlement reforms.
He said that he is against raising the eligibility age for Medicare for blue-collar workers but could consider a higher age for office workers.
“You could look at that. Not a blanket increase,” he said.