Left targets Sen. Kerry, frets about other deficit-reduction panel Democrats

Liberal groups are going after a former Democratic presidential candidate who sits on the debt supercommittee and fretting about other Senate Democrats who they suspect are eager to strike a deal with Republicans.

The Massachusetts AFL-CIO and other labor entities in the state have passed resolutions calling on Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) to publicly oppose cuts to safety-net programs. Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee, is one of three Senate Democrats who sit on the supercommittee.

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Unlike other members of the super panel, Kerry does not have leadership aspirations and his Massachusetts seat is regarded as extremely safe. So while others on the supercommittee would likely pay some type of political price if they signed off on a deal considered unfair, Kerry is not viewed as one of them. That dynamic has some on the left worried.

The liberals’ concern spiked after a proposal emerged from Democrats on the supercommittee that proposed the cuts as part of a $3 trillion deficit reduction deal that included $1.3 trillion in tax increases. The GOP rejected that proposal and the talks are stalemated.

The Democratic supercommitee plan, which would lower Social Security cost-of-living increases (COLA), immediately sparked outcries.

Left-leaning activists noted that Democrats successfully united against changes to Social Security in 2005 during President George W. Bush’s second term. Bush’s plan never even got a vote at the committee level.

“I am much more worried than I was [in 2005],” said Max Richtman of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

Greg Jefferson of the AFL-CIO said Social Security has become the “low hanging fruit” in deficit talks rather than off-limits as it used to be. The proposal on the table in the talks, known as chained consumer price index (CPI), changes how the government calculates inflation, thereby lowering benefit payments and raising taxes.

“They are willing to cut Social Security, but only apparently if their fingerprints are not on the deed — which is what has brought us to the supercommittee, the best way they apparently could devise to avoid accountability for most elected members,” said Nancy Altman of Social Security Works.

Kerry’s office strongly defended the senator’s record.

“John Kerry’s been fighting for seniors who depend on Social Security and Medicare throughout 26 years in the Senate. He takes a backseat to no one on these issues,” Kerry spokesperson Jodi Seth said.

“On behalf of all workers in our state and beyond, the Massachusetts labor movement urges Senator Kerry to capitalize on his historic role by preventing any cuts to the crucial safety net programs that support millions of Massachusetts families,” said Steven Tolman, President of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO in a statement.

Liberals are worried about other Democrats, as well.

In a major shift, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said this summer he is willing to consider changes to Social Security as part of a grand bargain.

“I am only willing to take a look at Medicare and Medicaid if there is a grand bargain, a grand bargain of more than $4 trillion that has significant revenue raisers,” Reid said at the time.

“Social Security is … the same as Medicare and Medicaid, yes,” added Reid when a reporter asked him if cuts to Social Security were also on the table.

Yet, in a March interview on MSNBC, Reid ruled out changes to the popular entitlement program, saying, “Leave Social Security alone.” 

He added, “Two decades from now, I’m willing to take a look at it. But I’m not willing to take a look at it right now.”

Social Security activists are also wary of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who worked with Bush on the 2001 tax cut and 2003 Medicare drug benefit.

Baucus voted against the Simpson-Bowles deficit plan in 2010 because it would “cut pensions for military members, lower Social Security payments, raise the retirement age and limit Medicare benefits. Cuts like that hit rural America the hardest because we proudly have more veterans and seniors than most other states,” according to his statement on the president’s fiscal commission plan last December.

Now, union and other liberal groups point out, Baucus embraced the Democratic supercommittee plan that calls for lower Social Security payments.

Roger Hickey of the Campaign for America’s Future said, “We are amazed that Sen. Baucus and the Democrats are calling for these cuts.”

Sources closely tracking the issue said President Obama’s move to accept Social Security changes over the summer pushed congressional Democrats to change their positions.

Democrats say they are being balanced in their approach and are fighting for seniors.

“The proposal Democrats put forth was serious, responsible and balanced, and by working off Obama’s negotiations to go big, it made the tough choices necessary to get our fiscal house in order while creating jobs and taking on the tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires,” a Democratic aide said.

“I give Sen. Baucus and the Democrats on the supercommittee credit for putting out a realistic offer,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) told The Hill. “I would like to see the same kind of risk-taking from the Republican colleagues.”

Warner said the notion that the national debt can be addressed “without making some folks unhappy” is not realistic.

“Sens. [Patty] Murray [D-Wash.], Baucus and Kerry have Sen. Reid’s full trust and support — that is why he appointed them to the joint committee in the first place. Sen. Reid believes that the Democratic offer is the only serious offer on the table,” said Adam Jentleson, Reid’s spokesman.

There are some House Democrats who are also warming to reforming aspects of Social Security.

Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.) told The Hill House Democrats do not want to cut entitlement benefits but when pressed, he said he would “reluctantly” back adopting a change to the Social Security cost-of-living increase if it could win a $4 trillion deal and passage of a jobs stimulus bill.

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) said he does not want to see chained CPI adopted, though there are a list of things he would accept if the deficit problem “could be put behind us.”

Still, some activists have warned senior Democrats in private meetings to distance themselves from the party’s supercommittee proposal, or they will face voter wrath in the 2012 elections.

Last week, AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka threatened to withhold critical union election support from anyone supporting the reported cuts.

In response to the face-to-face criticisms, some Democratic aides have said privately the supercommittee offer was merely a “ploy” to smoke out the GOP’s unwillingness to raise taxes, several activists said.

“We are hearing, ‘Don’t believe everything [you] read,’” Jefferson said of his meetings with staff to supercommittee members.

Some liberals say that Democrats’ best hope for avoiding punishment at the polls may be anti-tax activist Grover Norquist who is holding GOP feet to the fire over tax increases in any supercommittee deal. The issue could lead to a supercommittee flop.

“[Democrats] may be saved by Republican intransigence on taxes,” commented Richtman.

Norquist said that he does not think the Democrats are genuine about reforming entitlements.

“If it is so brave, why not write it down?” he said of the Democratic supercommittee proposal, details of which have not been publicly released.

In contrast to seniors’ groups, fiscal hawks are encouraged that the Democratic offer could lead to the kind of $3 trillion deal that they say is needed to stop the debt from spiraling out of control.

“I think Sen. Baucus has shown real leadership by putting this plan out,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. She said chained CPI is a “no-brainer” technical fix that corrects a misestimate of inflation.

Others strongly disagree. On June 22, a group of House Democrats warned that Social Security cuts are a nonstarter.

“You want a fight?” Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) said during a press conference in the Capitol. “If anybody in this building wants to take on Social Security — privatize it, change the benefits by altering the consumer price index or by any other method — know this: You’ve got a fight on your hands.”