For progressive Democrats in Congress, a fight with President Obama over the inclusion of cuts to Social Security in his budget proposal may be just a warm-up for the real looming battle: the 2014 midterms.
Defending the entitlement program has long been a pillar of the Democratic Party, and it’s one that lawmakers say they cannot ignore. As a bonus, it helps Democrats draw a stark difference with the GOP ahead of the midterms—if only they can convince the president to drop the proposal first.
“What we’re doing is probably helpful to the 2014 election,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., who is a cochair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “We know that the Republicans are the party of ‘no,’ and on this issue, on Social Security and Medicare, I don’t think we can be the party of ‘maybe.’ ”
“The contrast is very important. And by holding solid we provide a contrast, and I think it helps us,” he added.
There have been warning signs about this fight for some time. When reports first surfaced in February that Obama might propose measuring benefits with the “chained CPI,” which would slow the rate at which Social Security benefits increase by altering cost-of-living calculations, 107 Democrats signed a letter warning of their deep opposition to the proposal. As the budget release drew closer this week, more than 30 lawmakers reiterated that opposition, signing an April 9 letter to Obama promising to “vote against any and every cut to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security benefits.” Many CPC members will reiterate that message alongside the AFL-CIO in a Thursday press conference.
Adding to the pressure, progressive activists delivered a petition to the White House with more than 2 million signatures from people who object to the cuts.
Democrats, especially the progressive caucus leaders, seem to take no joy in the inherently uncomfortable task of publicly confronting the president. But they feel that they have no choice if they want to keep the promises they’ve made to constituents.
“We have to be vocal on [Social Security] because there’s a whole bunch of conservatives in this country who don’t like it, and didn’t like it, and never have liked it,” said Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., a caucus cochair. “I am and will remain a supporter of Barack Obama, but I just don’t agree that he’s right about this.”
Progressives have disagreed with President Obama before and ultimately caved on their demands. Grijalva recalled their push for a public option as the health care bill was being written. They got no such program, but most backed the bill anyway.
“This is different,” he told National Journal Daily. “This is one in which you have to go back to your district after you ran on the issue, in opposition to chained CPI,” he said. Reversing on an issue about which they’ve been adamant will be too much for most members, he said.
The progressive preference, detailed in the caucus’s alternative budget this year, would be to remove the $113,700 cap on wages subject to the Social Security payroll tax. Many activists agree with that strategy, but they are divided on just how much pressure they want to apply to congressional Democrats to toe the line against chained CPI.
Democracy for America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee are two grassroots progressive groups threatening to back a primary challenge to any Democrat who votes to use the chained CPI measure. “If people don’t represent their constituents back home and pursue an agenda of cutting Social Security benefits,... then, yeah, there needs to be accountability in 2014, and we’re very serious,” said PCCC cofounder Adam Green. He added that his group has already taken the first step by asking people who signed the petition if they would be willing to run for Congress to defend entitlements. More than 1,300 members said yes, he said.
Even Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent, added his own threat. Delivering the petition to the White House Tuesday, he sent a warning to members of Congress: “If they vote to cut Social Security, they may well not be returning to Washington.”
It’s not an attitude shared by many of his colleagues. “That’s certainly not something we’re encouraging,” Grijalva said, casting doubt on whether outside groups could even carry out such a threat. Democrats can whip up a good grassroots fury, but organized intraparty ideological standoffs have been the GOP’s forte .
Unlike some conservative groups, the progressives don’t seem to relish picking off their own. “We are serious about primarying anybody who does support [chained CPI], but I don’t think they are going to get too far,” said Jim Dean, chairman of Democracy for America.
In fact, he’d rather get the issue off the table than use it as a litmus test for party fidelity. “I’d like to see this thing killed right now,” he said, referring to chained CPI. “We’re really pretty cranky about this stuff coming up, but we’re going to have to fight it until it is gone.”
Plus, the entire activist community isn’t sold on the wisdom of primary challenges. Roger Hickey, the codirector of the Campaign for America’s Future, took care to distance his group from the threats, even though he adamantly opposes the chained CPI. For now, he blames Obama for any potential division in the party.
“We’re concerned that the president is fracturing the Democratic Party by putting this proposal into his budget,” he said. “Its unprecedented for an American president to put forward cuts to Social Security benefits. ... We would like to see Democrats get back to being defenders of Social Security, and politically we think that that’s the best way for Democrats to win the next election.”
This article appears in the April 11, 2013, edition of NJ Daily as Progressives Fight Obama on Entitlements.