By Mike Lillis - 12/19/12 01:18 AM EST
House Democratic leaders have softened their blanket opposition to Social Security cuts in a “fiscal-cliff” package despite an outpouring of anger from rank-and-file members.
Democratic leaders are keeping an open mind after President Obama proposed to cut inflationary increases in Social Security payments in his latest offer to Republicans, with some saying they’d support such reductions if the most vulnerable beneficiaries are protected.
Pelosi emphasized that the details of the plan “are not all ironed out,” and acknowledged that “maybe not every single [Democrat]” would support it. But she expressed confidence that an agreement backed by Obama — if it protected the oldest and the poorest — would win significant support from her troops.
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. “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 [R-Ohio] and the leader [Pelosi] and I will convince members that we ought to move forward.”
Hoyer added, “Affecting entitlements would not be our first choice, but then again, I don’t think you get there from here without dealing, in some respects, with entitlements.”
Many rank-and-file Democrats, however, are up in arms over the White House offer. The proposal comes weeks after both Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and White House press secretary Jay Carney suggested Social Security was off the table in the fiscal-cliff negotiations.
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 Social Security recipients.
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. James McGovern (D-Mass.).
“A terrible idea,” said Rep. and Sen.-elect 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?”
Any fiscal-cliff deal brokered between Boehner and Obama will need a significant amount of Democratic support to pass the House, because Tea Party lawmakers are expected to reject such an agreement.
Several Senate Democrats also hammered Obama’s chained CPI proposal Tuesday, with Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) saying the provision would be “a problem for Democrats”; Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) warning that he’ll “fight hard” to keep Social Security out of the fiscal-cliff package; and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) saying the White House move “doesn’t warm my heart.”
“I don’t care if they spread it over a whole bunch of years. The whole understanding has been that we wouldn’t do Social Security,” Rockefeller said. “That was for later.”
A day after the election, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said, “We are not going to mess with Social Security.”
Obama first embraced the CPI change and raising the Medicare eligibility age in his 2011 negotiations with Boehner on a grand bargain on taxes and spending. Those talks subsequently fell apart.
Both Hoyer and Pelosi said changes to Social Security updates would be much easier for Democrats to swallow than proposals to raise the eligibility age for Medicare.
“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. But he moderated his tone sharply on Tuesday, being 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 benefits. But on Tuesday, he likewise 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 toward 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.”
Bernie Becker, Peter Schroeder and Erik Wasson contributed.