Liberal Dems lining up behind budget deal

Liberal Dems lining up behind budget deal
© Greg Nash

House Democrats are lining up behind a sweeping bipartisan proposal to stave off a federal default and prevent a government shutdown despite initial concerns over entitlement changes.

The package includes several reforms to Social Security and Medicare, which initially raised eyebrows from liberal Democrats who've historically stood in firm opposition to any cuts to entitlement benefits.

But after gathering Tuesday morning in the Capitol with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who helped negotiate the agreement, even the most liberal lawmakers suggested they would back the proposal.

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"My biggest concern was how it was going to treat Social Security disability," said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, "and the questions I got answered so far have allayed some of my concerns. 

"So I'm going to keep studying it," he added, "but at this point I don't have any fire alarms going off."

Rep. Sandy Levin (Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, didn't hesitate for a moment when asked if he'll support the deal.

"Yes," he said. "Because we worked hard on it." 

Levin said the Democrats won a victory in the talks when they stripped a GOP provision to make those receiving disability payments ineligible for unemployment benefits.

He and other Democrats suggested the disability provision in the package is not the structural reform the Republicans are claiming but merely acts to close a loophole. That change, he said, is palatable even to liberals averse to entitlement cuts.

"We avoided the worst proposal on disability to eliminate the availability of [unemployment insurance] to those who are on disability," Levin said.

The support from liberals lends an enormous boost to the deal's prospects, as Republican leaders will likely need Democratic votes to move the package through the lower chamber in the face of conservative concerns about spending levels.

At a briefing Tuesday morning, leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus said multiple times they were “cautiously optimistic” about the deal.

While the group said it wouldn’t yet give an official endorsement, several members took credit for preventing any benefit cuts in entitlement programs while busting the caps on non-defense spending.

“Our negotiations prevented benefit cuts,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who also co-chairs the Seniors Task Force, said at the briefing.

The deal would make it tougher for new enrollees to receive benefits, requiring two doctors instead of one to confirm an individual has a disability. While Schakowsky said she was “somewhat concerned” by the provision, she said it was the best that Democratic negotiators to do to avert cuts for 11 million people with disability benefits.

Pelosi, for her part, acknowledged some concerns in the Democratic meeting but suggested her troops would ultimately rally behind the package.

"Members were informed, they were positive, but they had their questions and they know it's a compromise," Pelosi said after the meeting. "I'm positive about it."

Asked how many Democrats will get on board, Pelosi said of Republicans, "I don't know how many votes they have; that's more the question, I think."

The House is expected to vote on the package on Wednesday. 

This story was updated at 1:03 p.m. Sarah Ferris contributed.