Hoyer: Entitlement benefit cuts on the table in talks with GOP on 'fiscal cliff'

Entitlement cuts should remain on the table as party leaders seek to hash out an end-of-the-year budget deal, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Tuesday.

A number of Democratic leaders — including Reps. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), John Larson (Conn.) and Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraNew Alzheimer's drug sparks backlash over FDA, pricing Obama joins Biden to tout record ObamaCare enrollment numbers Biden walks fine line with probe into coronavirus origins MORE (Calif.) — have said they would support some spending reductions in Medicare, but that cuts to direct benefits should not be a part of the negotiations. Along with Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidNevada governor signs law making state first presidential primary Infighting grips Nevada Democrats ahead of midterms Lobbying world MORE (D-Nev.), they also maintain that Social Security reform has no place at all in the "fiscal cliff" talks.

But Hoyer, the Democratic whip, warned that taking entitlement benefits off the table is a bad place to start the negotiations. Such entrenched positions are little different, he said, than the Republicans' refusal to consider hikes in tax rates — a central element of President Obama's deficit-reduction proposal.

Hoyer said GOP proposals to raise the Medicare eligibility age, make wealthier seniors pay higher Medicare rates and limit the cost-of-living increases for some federal programs are legitimate ones, even as he warned he might not support them.

“They clearly are on the table,” Hoyer said of the Medicare changes during his weekly press briefing in the Capitol. “They were on the table in the BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerAre maskless House members scofflaws? Israel, Democrats and the problem of the Middle East Joe Crowley to register as lobbyist for recording artists MORE-Obama talks. They've been on the table for some period of time. That does not mean that I'd be prepared to adopt them now, but they're clearly, I think, on the table.”

Hoyer said the GOP's proposal to reduce the cost-of-living increases to certain federal programs – the so-called chained consumer price index (CPI) – should also be considered as part of the fiscal cliff talks.

“We have many Republicans say 'absolutely not' ... on [higher] rates or revenues,” he said. “There are Democrats on our side who say 'absolutely not' if they do A or they do B or they do C. … You've got to put everything on the table.”

CPI, a measure of inflation that attempts to gauge cost-of-living fluctuations, is used to index a number of government programs – including food stamps, federal pensions and determining tax brackets. But in the current deficit-reduction fight it's most often used in reference to Social Security payments.

Indeed, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellWhat the Democrats should be doing to reach true bipartisanship Democrats mull overhaul of sweeping election bill McConnell seeks to divide and conquer Democrats MORE (R-Ky.) last week urged that Social Security adopt the chained CPI formula.

“Those are the kinds of things that would get Republicans interested in new revenue,” McConnell told The Wall Street Journal.

Many Democrats have rejected the chained CPI for Social Security because it would reduce the cost-of-living increases under the popular seniors' program.

Hoyer's office said Tuesday that Hoyer's support for having chained CPI on the table was not a reference to Social Security, which they say he wants on “a separate track.”

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Party leaders are seeking a deal to prevent a host of automatic tax hikes and spending cuts from taking effect next month. The White House last week introduced a proposal that includes $1.6 trillion in new revenues and $400 billion in new entitlement cuts — though not benefit cuts — over the next decade.

GOP leaders unveiled a counteroffer Monday, featuring $800 billion in new tax revenues and $2.2 trillion in cuts to discretionary and entitlement programs.

Both sides have rejected the other's proposal, with GOP leaders dismissing Obama's plan as “unserious” and the White House calling on GOP leaders to come up with more specifics on their proposal.

The central sticking points continue to be tax rates and entitlement benefits. Republicans say they want to close tax loopholes and cap deductions, but they've rejected Obama's plan to allow income taxes on the highest earners to go up next year, as scheduled.

Many Democratic leaders, meanwhile, have rejected the GOP plan to scale back Medicare and Social Security benefits, including proposals floated recently by McConnell to raise Medicare's eligibility age and reduce future inflation-indexed hikes in Social Security payments.

“Social Security is not part of the problem,” Reid said last month. “We want to make sure that in the outer years people are protected also, but it's not going to be part of the budget talks, as far as I'm concerned.”

Becerra delivered a message recently warning that Democrats will consider anything — except entitlement benefit cuts.

“We're willing to talk and to put everything on the table for discussion — at least, this Democrat is,” Becerra added. “But the moment you want to privatize Social Security, or voucherize Medicare, or block-grant Medicaid — that's where you lose us. Because we want to strengthen those programs, not let them die on the vine.”

Hoyer on Tuesday said negotiators should take those warnings seriously, but he also emphasized that a bipartisan deal will inevitably — and necessarily — include provisions that one side or the other doesn't like.

“Very frankly, if we don't say, 'Look, we have to take into consideration what people say they won't do, but we also have to take into consideration what the majority think we can do to get us to the objective, to get America on a fiscally sustainable, credible path,” Hoyer said.

“You've got to have everything on the table, not withstanding the fact that I don't like some things that may be on the table.”

This story was updated at 4:06 p.m.