Entitlements may get cut, Dems fear

Liberal Democrats are growing increasingly worried that the fiscal showdown will lead President Obama to sacrifice sacred-cow programs such as Social Security in order to end the deadlock.

Although Obama has been adamant he won’t negotiate on legislation to reopen the government or raise the debt limit, he has in past debates proposed entitlement cuts amid big budget talks as a signal he’s willing to work across the aisle to win a deal.

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The offers to cut Social Security and Medicare have infuriated his left flank, which is now raising alarms in hopes of steering the president away from extending similar proposals for the sake of an agreement — either now or on a larger budget package down the line.

“The president has said in the past that … on the grand bargain, there are some things that people in my party won’t like. You would have to think that some type of reduction in entitlements would be, logically, one of the things he’s talking about,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said Wednesday. “I’m hoping that the president doesn’t do that. … I pray that he won’t.”

Obama met with House Democrats in the East Room of the White House on Wednesday as part of an effort to unify his party ahead of the stretch run to Oct. 17, the deadline for raising the debt ceiling.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) described the meeting as “positive” and said members of the conference “expressed our appreciation to each other for standing together.”

She also said her caucus could accept a two-month debt-ceiling hike if the alternative is a U.S. default.

Before the meeting, however, one Democratic aide dismissed it as having little value.“It’s a check-the-box meeting,” one Democratic chief of staff said. “It’s one thing if you’re inviting a small group, but these larger meetings aren’t very constructive or helpful. I think a lot of people feel that way. There aren’t any deliverables that come out of them.”

There is particular concern about Obama’s previous openness to indexing future Social Security updates to the “chained” consumer price index (CPI), which would reduce payments to seniors, disabled veterans and other beneficiaries, and compound those cuts over time. 

Twice in as many weeks, liberal Democrats have staged rallies at the Capitol protesting chained CPI, arguing that it has no place in negotiations over the budget.

“Social Security should be completely off the table in budget negotiations,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said at a rally Wednesday. “That is not a legitimate source of revenue because it is not a source of deficit [spending].” 

Schakowsky said she’s broached the topic “directly with the president.” She did not reveal details of his response, but said she’s “hopeful … that that will not be part of his offering on the table.”

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said the liberals’ opposition to chained CPI is “a hard no,” and that Obama is “among those people that I’m concerned about” as the debate wears on and Republicans insist on Democratic concessions.

“The president, I am concerned, has kind of thrown chained CPI out there, and I would certainly oppose any cuts to Social Security,” Ellison said. 

“The president has been solid so far; I don’t want to preemptively criticize him,” Ellison added. “But it should be well known that we’re not going to accept any cuts to already low-income seniors.”

Max Richtman, president of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, an advocacy group, echoed that message. 

“We are very concerned — deeply concerned — that the chained CPI is once again emerging as a bargaining chip in negotiations on the debt and the shutdown of the federal government,” Richtman said at Wednesday’s rally.

The impasse over government spending and the debt limit has dragged on for weeks, leading much of the government to close its doors Oct. 1 and threatening a federal default as soon as next week.

Obama and the Democrats are insisting that House Republicans accept “clean” bills without extra conditions to reopen the government and hike the debt ceiling. And the president on Tuesday reiterated that he won’t negotiate on a continuing resolution (CR) or the debt-limit hike. Instead, he called on Republicans to “lift these threats” and pass clean bills, at which point he’ll happily come to the table to negotiate longer-term budget issues.

Liberal Democrats have been heartened by Obama’s stand.

“It was important for the president to clarify that he’s absolutely willing to sit down at the table on all of these budget issues, but he’s not going to allow people to hold him hostage on paying our bills on time,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), ranking member of the House Budget Committee, said Wednesday.

Still, many Democrats are worried Obama could again offer his entitlement cuts as part of broader budget negotiations that might follow the immediate battles.

“Chained CPI was proposed by the president, and a vast majority of Democrats oppose it,” said Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.). “But if the president proposed it, it’s on the table. So folks who are concerned about it have a solid basis to be concerned.”

Amie Parnes and Justin Sink contributed.

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