House Democratic leaders soften opposition to Social Security cuts

House Democratic leaders have softened their blanket opposition to Social Security cuts in a "fiscal cliff" package despite anger from rank-and-file members of their conference.  

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Democratic leaders expressed an open mind after President Obama proposed the cuts in his latest deficit offer to Republicans, with some saying they'd support Social Security reductions if the proposal protects the most vulnerable beneficiaries. 

Others downplayed Obama's proposal as just another part of tough negotiations, and still others suggested those cuts won't be a part of the final deal.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told MSNBC on Tuesday that Democrats "will stick with the president" if an agreement is reached. 

"Maybe not every single one of them," she added, noting that the details of the chained CPI proposal are "not all ironed out."

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) delivered a similar message Tuesday.

"Everybody needs to understand that nobody is going to be happy with every provision of a deal," Hoyer warned. He said the package should put the country "on a fiscally sustainable path," "get the debt limit off the table" and "provide some revenues for growing the economy and investing."

"The president wants to address all three of those, and I agree with him," Hoyer said. "Some members will have problems with some parts but … if we get an agreement that the president can support, hopefully we can get a majority in the House – Republicans and Democrats – and [Speaker John] Boehner and the Leader [Pelosi] and I will convince members that we ought to move forward."

But many rank-and-file members are up in arms over the White House offer.

Emerging from a Democratic Caucus meeting Tuesday morning – where they were briefed on Obama's plan by top White House adviser Rob Nabors – the Democrats pushed back hard against the president's proposal to reduce future cost-of-living raises for beneficiaries of the popular retirement program.

The change — known as the chained consumer price index (CPI) — is said to cut $130 billion in federal spending over a decade, and would include safeguards to protect the most vulnerable seniors. 

"I don't like it at all," said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.).

"A terrible idea," said Rep. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).

"We don't like the chained CPI," said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.)

"We don't like it," said Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.). "Why are you hurting the vulnerable seniors?"

Both Hoyer and Pelosi said changes to Social Security updates would be much easier for Democrats to swallow than proposals to raise Medicare's eligibility age.

"The age limit is much more sensitive," Hoyer said.

Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), vice-chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, has for weeks attacked efforts to cut Social Security as part of the fiscal cliff talks — including the move to chained CPI. And while he reiterated that position Tuesday, he was also careful not to attack Obama's chained CPI proposal directly.

"The president has, all the way through this, tried to come up with a plan that … would be balanced and would address our deficits and still let us move forward with creating jobs," Becerra said. "Many of us still have faith that the president will ultimately — if he strikes a deal with the Republicans — give us a plan that we can vote on that provides that fairness and that balance. What the actual elements will be? It's unclear."

Rep. John Larson (Conn.), the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, has also attacked proposed cuts to Social Security updates. But on Tuesday, he declined to go after Obama's proposal, saying he's still waiting for details.

"We didn't get into that kind of discussion" with Nabors, he said. "All of you can generally surmise what people in the caucus would have to say about that. But until there's any kind of concrete proposal … it seems like a moving target, so [there's] not really much we can comment on there. 

"We continue to stand with the president on a fair and balanced proposal that has to accomplish the goals that he has outlined," Larson added.

Liberal Democrats and advocacy groups, meanwhile, are racing furiously to prevent the chained CPI from making its way into a final deal. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee blasted an email Tuesday with warnings that such a shift would weaken Social Security for everyone.

"A move towards chained CPI," said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), "would be a long-term benefit cut for every single person who receives a Social Security check."

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