Pelosi walks tightrope on Social Security cuts

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) offered support Thursday for President Obama's latest budget proposal but wondered aloud why the White House would choose to cut Social Security to pay down deficits.

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"I myself believe that whatever we talk about in terms of prolonging [the] life of Social Security should be considered in its own place," Pelosi said during a press briefing at the Capitol.

"Whatever we're doing, it's about extending the life and the strength of Social Security. It's not about balancing the budget. That's some of the concern that some of our members have: Why is this in this bill?"

Pelosi's comments came less than an hour before the House Democratic Caucus was scheduled to meet with budget experts who have contrasting views on the wisdom and potential dangers of altering the inflation gauge used for Social Security and other federal programs. 

"Coming out of this meeting, we will be better equipped to really know what the impact is of chained CPI — the pros and cons of it," Pelosi said. "But I think there's more of an interest in viewing it ... just in terms of Social Security stability, rather than balancing the budget."

Unveiled Wednesday, Obama's budget proposal has infuriated liberals for including a provision, called chained CPI, that would change the formula used to calculate Social Security benefits, reducing payments over the long term.

"It's a compromise measure," Pelosi said. "As with all compromise measures, there are some things in there that everybody doesn't love."

Indeed, as Pelosi was speaking to reporters in one corner of the Capitol, a number of liberals in her caucus were hammering the president's budget proposal at a separate event just off the Capitol steps. 

Obama's proposal, and Pelosi's reaction to it, highlights the tightrope Democratic leaders are walking in the high-stakes deficit-reduction debate. 

On the one hand, they want to be seen as the reasonable negotiators, willing to give up sacred cows for the sake of budget stability even in the face of Republicans who have drawn a clear line in the sand against tax increases. 

On the other hand, Democrats don't want to give up their image as the champions of the nation's decades-old entitlement programs, particularly the popular seniors benefits of Social Security and Medicare. 

The possible political ramifications of Obama's proposed Social Security cut were underlined Wednesday when Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, accused Obama of “trying to balance this budget on the backs of seniors.”

Walden's accusation bucked the message coming from other GOP leaders, who have long called for entitlement cuts like chained CPI. But it hints strongly that GOP leaders are hoping to pin ownership of the Social Security cuts on the shoulders of the Democrats ahead of the 2014 elections.

Pelosi on Thursday said critics of Obama's proposed Social Security cut might have nothing to worry about, because the Republicans' refusal to give on taxes suggests that no budget grand bargain is forthcoming.

"The president I believe, has just ... said to the Republicans, 'OK, you want to see something in the area of Social Security and Medicare? These are only on the table if we're talking about serious revenue,'" she said. "So far we haven't seen the response to that. … Let's see what they do."