By Mike Lillis - 04/14/13 10:00 AM EDT
A growing number of House Democrats are concerned that President Obama's proposal to cut Social Security benefits will haunt the party at the polls in 2014.
Although Democrats have long-championed the retirement program, they say Obama's plan to reduce payments for future beneficiaries through a chained consumer price index (CPI) has weakened their stance and opened the door for Republicans to vilify the president.
The leader of the campaign arm for House Republicans, Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), on Wednesday called Obama’s plan a "shocking attack on seniors."
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the former head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Walden's comments foreshadow a line of attack the GOP will use on the campaign trail next year. It's a reason, he added, for Democrats to worry.
"I know there have been efforts to rewind the tape on that," Van Hollen said, referencing Republican criticisms of Walden's comments, "but that first salvo demonstrated what the Republican campaign committee intends to do."
Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) said Obama's Social Security proposal was a gift to Republicans that could single-handedly kill any chance the party had at regaining the Speaker's gavel in 2014.
"Seniors vote in even heavier numbers, proportionately, in off-year elections," he said. "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."
At issue is a provision of Obama's 2014 budget proposal that would alter the inflation-adjustment formula governing payments for Social Security, among a long list of other federal programs. The adoption of the so-called "chained CPI" would slow the rate of inflation over the long term, thereby reducing cost-of-living increases for future beneficiaries.
Supporters of the shift to the chained CPI argue that it will reduce federal spending in the face of unsustainable long-term deficits and install a more accurate measure of inflation than the current formula. Additionally, because the savings grow over time, it would provide the greatest help decades in the future, when the country's fiscal problems are expected to be most acute.
Obama’s inclusion of the provision was an olive branch to Republicans, who have long-championed cuts to entitlement programs. GOP leaders were quick to praise him — if tepidly — for offering it.
"While the president has backtracked on some of his entitlement reforms that were in conversations that we had a year and a half ago, he does deserve some credit for some incremental entitlement reforms that he has outlined in his budget,” Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Wednesday.
Walden delivered a different verdict, telling CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that Obama was “trying to balance this budget on the backs of seniors."
That's precisely the message Republicans used to great effect in 2010, when, despite their own calls to slash Medicare spending, they accused Democrats of threatening seniors by enacting billions of dollars in Medicare cuts under Obama's signature healthcare reform law.
"I don't underestimate the degree to which they'll be disingenuous," Rep. Mark Takano (Calif.), a freshman Democrat who has emerged as one of the loudest critics of Social Security benefit cuts, said Friday. "It harkens back to the charge that $700 billion was taken from Medicare and put into ObamaCare, and [they] told all the seniors it was a [benefit] cut. That was very deceptive, [and] this is another instance of that."
Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), another staunch defender of Social Security, echoed that charge Friday.
"I never underestimate Republican hypocrisy," he said.
Not all Democrats fear Obama's chained CPI proposal will be a liability for the party during the midterms. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, argued that the president proposed the change, so any political fallout should be directed at him.
"They cannot lay that dead cat at our door," Ellison said Friday. "I don't know how it's going to affect the president's brand, but it would be completely unfair to affect the House Democratic Caucus brand, because we had nothing to do with it and most of us are affirmatively and explicitly against it."
Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), another fierce critic of chained CPI, offered another reason he thinks GOP attacks on Obama's budget won’t stick: Republicans, he said, have crusaded for similar entitlement cuts for too long to reverse course convincingly.
"The party that champions the dismantling of Medicare has a hard time attacking anybody for going after seniors," Deutch said Friday. "They would not come with clean hands to that argument."
Deutch predicted the conservative House Republican conference would ultimately prevent Walden and his National Republican Congressional Committee from attacking Obama's chained CPI proposal on the campaign trail, even if it would prove effective.
"There are too many members of his caucus who want to do real harm to Social Security and Medicare," Deutch said. "They won't allow him to even make that political argument because he'll expose them for what they really want to do."
Complicating the GOP attacks on Obama's proposal, more than 100 Republicans voted this year in favor of the Republican Study Committee budget, which includes a shift to the chained CPI.
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) argued that the Republicans' track record on Social Security — which includes the effort by President George W. Bush to privatize the program — would make it "immensely difficult" for GOP leaders to make an effective campaign strategy out of Obama's proposal.
"They are firmly embedded in the minds of the public as being a party that does not support Social Security," DeFazio said. "Hypocrisy is rife around here, but I think that was a personal statement by Greg Walden. … I don't think this is a budding strategy."
Democrats are quick to note that the Republicans' hard-line opposition to new taxes likely means the shift to chained CPI won't move in any event, as Obama is hinging his support for that provision on the GOP's acceptance of new revenues.
"The one thing the president has been clear about is that he would only consider this change as part of a larger package, a balanced package," Deutch said. "There's no indication that we're going to see even the slightest bit of movement toward that from the other side."
Even those Democrats concerned about the political ramifications of Obama's proposal say they have plenty of time to take their case to voters and blunt any potential political damage.
"Our job is to make clear that Mr. Walden's crocodile tears over [Obama's proposal] rings insincere and hollow," Takano said. "As a whole, Republicans want to do far, far, far more damage than chained CPI."