Before Thursday's White House meeting on the budget, congressional Democrats said they planned to remind President Obama not to leave his party and base behind. The Democrats' testiness followed reports that the White House was proposing to alter Social Security and Medicare as part of a potential debt-ceiling deal with Republicans.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in the meeting “expressed concern that we hadn’t been as much in the loop as we would have liked to have been," said a senior Democratic aide who asked not to be identified so he could speak candidly about the friction between the president and Democratic congressional leaders.
That feeling is shared by many Democrats, irked not just by the potential cuts, but by the White House’s failure to float it to Democratic lawmakers before they learned of the proposal through media.
“Good politics starts with good communication, and I think they should have come and talked to us about the direction, particularly when it’s the social contract and we feel so strongly about it,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.
The debt-ceiling talks seem to be occurring in “a parallel universe,” Mikulski said. “The base is quite cheerless right now,” she added.
The White House appears to be gambling that Democrats, even if they gripe, will ultimately rally around the deal the president cuts, as they did last year on a tax package and this year on a continuing resolution funding the government through October. And Democrats, especially at the leadership level, recognize that because House Republicans are the chief obstacle to passage of a deal to cut the deficit and raise the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling, the main negotiators must be Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
But any deal will still need votes from Senate Democrats and likely some House Democrats. And Democrats worked Thursday to suggest limits to what they will accept.
“I believe that if you are going to deal with Social Security, it should be done on a separate track unrelated to the deficit reduction,” said House Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who was a member of the bipartisan debt-reduction panel led by Vice President Joe Biden.
“My view is that you’re—just to be very clear—not going to balance the budget on the backs of Social Security recipients,” Van Hollen said.
According to a New York Times report and congressional staffers, Boehner over the weekend raised the prospect of a deal including $1 trillion in new tax revenues, along with the prospect of an agreement on a future tax code overhaul that would increase revenue while closing tax loopholes.
But Democrats signaled they may not accept a deal that pairs immediate entitlement cuts with the prospect of future revenue increases.
In a statement, David Krone, Reid’s chief of staff, said spending and revenue should be balanced “in terms of timing, specificity and dollars.”
It is not clear exactly what Social Security and Medicare shifts the White House is suggesting, but administration officials have said a proposal from Obama's Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction commission to raise the cap on Social Security payroll taxes -- currently set at $106,800 -- is possible. Some Democrats are open to the idea. "I think that one thing that's not on the table is lifting the cap," said Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., "and that could be a way to strengthen Social Security." In addition, congressional Republicans have suggested paring Social Security benefits by changing the way cost-of-living adjustments are calculated for beneficiaries.
Several House Democrats on Thursday said they were pressing House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., not to accept any changes to Social Security or Medicare, though Pelosi did not commit to such a stance.
Many Democrats argue Social Security savings should remain in the program, not be used for deficit cuts. "Any changes to Social Security must be reinvested in Social Security and not used to offset tax cuts for millionaires," said Castor.
Billy House contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the July 7, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.