House Dem leaders balk at Obama's plan to cut Social Security

House Democratic leaders pushed back Thursday against President Obama's decision to include Social Security cuts as part of his 2014 budget request.

Several top-ranking Democrats — including Reps. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Steny Hoyer (Md.), James Clyburn (S.C.) and Xavier Becerra (Calif.) — questioned the wisdom of altering popular seniors benefits in the context of deficit reduction. 

"I think there was general consensus that all of that discussion should be something for the table on which we preserve Social Security and not really part of this budget," Pelosi said following a meeting Democrats held with budget experts on the White House plan to reduce future Social Security benefits by adopting a new way of calculating inflation.

Obama's budget proposal has infuriated liberals for including the chained CPI proposal, which would change the formula used to calculate Social Security benefits and lower payments over the long term.

Most of pushback from rank-and-file members, she said, stemmed from concerns that the Social Security cut appeared to be "subsidizing ... lesser priorities" rather than bolstering the program itself. That could have negative consequences on future efforts to strengthen the program, Pelosi lamented.

"What may happen, because of this debate, is that lines may be so drawn on this subject as part of the budget, that it might prejudice people as an approach," she added. "It's too bad it's in the budget."

Hoyer, for his part, declined to weigh in on the specific policy put forward by the president. But the Democratic whip echoed Pelosi's concerns about including Social Security reforms as part of the budget. 

"We need to deal with Social Security outside of the context of the budget and deficit debate," Hoyer said. 

Becerra, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, agreed. Asked if the budget is the proper forum for Social Security reform, the California liberal was terse. 

"No," he said. 

"Social Security has never added a penny to the deficit or the national debt," he added. "Why you would take $230 billion through the chained CPI by cutting benefits for seniors, veterans and the disabled? To a number of folks [that] doesn't make any sense."

Clyburn, the third-ranking House Democrat, piled on. 

"I think Social Security should be a stand-alone piece of legislation that we all deal with in a way that's separate and distinct from the budget," he said.

As a caucus, House Democrats met Thursday afternoon to discuss the chained CPI proposal with two budget experts: Robert Greenstein, the head of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and Damon Silvers, director of policy for the AFL-CIO. 

Greenstein argued that the chained CPI could be structured in such a way that it would protect the oldest and poorest Social Security beneficiaries; Silvers warned that adopting the new formula — which adjusts inflationary updates for Social Security and a host of other federal programs — could harm beneficiaries. 

He urged Democrats to seek other ways of sustaining the program. 

Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, emerged from Thursday's meeting fuming.

"If we're going to talk about Social Security at all, it should be in a separate discussion [and] have nothing to do with the deficit," Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said angrily.

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) said he would vote against Obama's chained CPI proposal "in any context" and warned that the president, by taking ownership of the cut in his budget proposal, has undermined the Democrats' chances of winning back the House in 2014. 

"The proposal itself damns its future," Pascrell said. "Seniors vote in even heavier numbers, proportionately, in off-year elections. So just looking at a political standpoint ... I would think that this would be a damning blow to our chances of taking back the House next year." 

"When we're explaining, we're losing," he added.

Pelosi was more light-hearted, suggesting that Thursday's animated meeting was simply a natural part of the legislative process.

"It was lively and it was interesting," she said, "and it was not the end of the discussion."

-— Cameron Joseph contributed to this report.