By Mike Lillis - 01/10/13 07:34 PM EST
Breaking with the White House and other Democratic leaders, the head of the House Democratic Caucus suggested this week that he'll oppose any budget package that includes Social Security cuts.
Both President Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have signaled a willingness to support a move to index future Social Security updates to the so-called chained consumer price index (CPI), which would reduce projected benefits over the long term.
"We know Republicans are interested in cutting Social Security and Medicare, [and] perhaps there are some [Democrats] who would say, 'If that's what it takes to reach a big deal, we'll do that,' " Becerra said Thursday in an interview with C-SPAN's "Newsmakers" program. "I'm not yet convinced that simply because Republicans want to cut Social Security and Medicare, even though there's no justification for doing it … that we should do that."
Pelosi raised eyebrows last month when she defended Obama's support of the chained CPI as part of a broad "fiscal-cliff" deal. Although the provision was not included in the final agreement, liberal critics were irate that top Democrats were ready to accept some Social Security cuts as part of the package.
Becerra, the fourth-ranking House Democrat, was quick this week to praise Pelosi for her work in searching for a long-term strategy to rein in deficit spending. But he warned that he's ready to break with her and other party leaders on the Social Security issue as the deficit talks progress.
"If you want to talk about strengthening Social Security into the future … I'm there, I'm willing to talk about just about anything — same with Medicare," he said. "But to the degree that you're using benefits that people have paid for, they've earned, to cover deficits caused by unpaid-for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, unpaid-for tax cuts under the Bush administration, then that's a tough one for me to swallow.
"While I respect what the president [and] Leader Pelosi are trying to accomplish," he added, "I have to be convinced that I should be telling my parents that what they paid for … is now going to get cut because someone else spent money for Bush tax cuts for billionaires or unpaid-for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan."
The remarks arrive ahead of three enormous fiscal debates facing Congress in the next 90 days: how to raise the debt ceiling, avoid blunt sequestration cuts and fund the government.
Many Republicans see the looming debt-ceiling fight as their best chance to win major cuts from the Democrats, but Obama has said he won't negotiate with GOP leaders on the issue.
The standoff has led some Democrats to call for the administration to raise the debt limit unilaterally, either by invoking the 14th Amendment — which the White House has rejected — or minting a special, high-denomination coin that would allow the Treasury to continue paying its obligations without congressional approval.
Becerra suggested Thursday that either option is better than agreeing to GOP demands for steep spending cuts to accompany the debt-limit hike. He accused GOP leaders of demanding "a ransom" of cuts just to pay the bills they themselves helped to incur.
"You can't negotiate with hostage-takers, you can't constantly pay ransom," he said. "And so I think the president must use one of the options before him, whichever is the least offensive."
Becerra, the only member of the Democratic leadership team to vote against the fiscal-cliff deal, said he did so out of a fear that the relatively small package lends Republicans too many chances in the near future to win additional cuts on middle-class programs.
"This short-term deal creates three new fiscal cliffs, which is not the way you want to run [either] the smallest business on Main Street or the largest economy in the world," he said.
"I'm not interested in now putting the burden of solving these [problems] on the middle class," he added, "and my fear is that we're going to see this gamesmanship played again and again through what will be, essentially, three new opportunities for Republicans to play mischief with our budget."
C-SPAN's "Newsmakers" program is set to air Sunday morning.