White House struggles to rally House Dems behind chained CPI

President Obama is struggling to convince House Democrats that a proposed cut to Social Security benefits has a place in the deficit fight.

The White House on Tuesday sent its top economic adviser to the Capitol to meet with the Democratic Caucus in an effort to soothe the outcries over Obama’s plan to cut the popular seniors benefit by adopting the so-called “chained CPI” formula in his 2014 budget.

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Gene Sperling defended the budget eloquently, according to several Democrats in the room, but did little to convince critics of chained CPI that the proposal is appropriate for the budget debate.

“For me, there’s no question. If this is a negotiation on budget issues, trying to deal with deficits, then Social Security has never added a single penny to the deficits of this country or to the national debt,” Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said immediately after the meeting.

“So if you’re talking about making cuts to seniors, to disabled folks, to children, to widows [and] widowers, to help take care of deficits, please don’t tell me to consider Social Security. The chained CPI is a cut to benefits — earned benefits — to all those folks who paid into the system.

“I don’t see the value of including it in the budget,” he added.

Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.) also suggested he was not won over by Tuesday’s White House pitch. The vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus said Sperling tried “to put some members at ease” by emphasizing that the White House views chained CPI as a lesser of evils in the search for a deficit deal with Republicans.

“There’s no love of this particular avenue,” Crowley said, describing the administration’s argument, “but ... of all the avenues that are available, this is the least harmful in terms of what they believe the consequences may be down the road for the country.”

Still, Crowley was quick to stress that the chained CPI proposal “is not the position of myself, the chairman [Becerra] or of our caucus.”

“We have more discussions to go,” he said.

Unveiled last Wednesday, the president’s budget proposal has infuriated liberals for its inclusion of a provision indexing future cost-of-living increases in Social Security, among other federal programs, to the chained consumer price index (CPI), which will reduce benefits over the long term.

The measure is an olive branch to Republicans, who have long-championed benefit cuts under Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in the name of reducing the size of government.

Obama has emphasized, however, that he’s not willing to cut entitlements unless Republicans concede new tax revenues — something GOP leaders in both chambers are refusing to do.

Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the House Democratic whip, said Sperling on Tuesday “made a very strong case for the president’s budget.” He noted that Obama’s plan mirrors that of House Democrats on a number of fronts, including a push to eliminate the sequester cuts that began to take effect last month.

But Hoyer also conceded that a number of Democrats continue to harbor reservations about the chained CPI provision.

“It was a very positive [message], and received positively,” Hoyer said. “But that doesn’t mean that everybody agreed with everything in the budget.”

Obama’s proposed Social Security cut has highlighted the fine line Democratic leaders are walking in the high-stakes deficit-reduction debate. While they want to be seen as reasonable negotiators, willing to give up sacred cows for the sake of budget stability, they also don’t want to sacrifice their image as the champions of the nation’s decades-old entitlement programs, particularly the popular seniors benefits of Social Security and Medicare.

Becerra, for his part, is warning that the Democrats gain little by proposing cuts to a program they have long defended.

“I’m not interested in negotiating with myself,” Becerra said. “So the last thing I’d want to do is be putting on the table for cuts the benefits that my parents earned when they worked all their lives.”