Even as the White House and lawmakers signal optimism about reaching a grand bargain to avert the fiscal cliff before the New Year, President Obama’s liberal allies were battening down the hatches on their position: no cuts to entitlement benefits, at all.
MoveOn.org would not get behind any deal that reduced Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security benefits, said Ilya Sheyman, campaign director for the liberal group. The AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, is equally adamant that benefits should not be cut.
“Our principles are non-negotiable and if the cost for getting the speaker of the House on board is to do something like cut taxes yet again for the rich or cut benefits to the social safety net, we are opposed,” said AFL-CIO spokesman Jeff Hauser, who added that it was better to go over the “fiscal slope” than to bend to Republican demands.
Representatives for the AARP, one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington, said that although they were open to having a conversation about ways to slow the growth of health care costs in a different context, they were appalled at the prospect that changes to vital entitlement programs could be ironed out in an end-of-the-year deal on budget and taxes.
“We think it’s absolutely wrong to be asking beneficiaries to solve the fiscal-cliff problem,” said David Certner, the group’s legislative policy counsel. “We reject that as a choice—that the only way to avoid going off the cliff is to have seniors shoulder a bigger share of the burden.”
Meanwhile, the National Education Association, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and the Service Employees International Union, three of the most prominent labor groups in the country, have opted for a more proactive approach, taking out a six-figure ad buy in five states to pressure members of Congress—particularly moderate Senate Democrats—to stand firm against benefit cuts.
The pressure from the left flank of the president’s coalition is sure to make what is already a delicate dance even more difficult for the White House during budget negotiations. While congressional Republicans have signaled some flexibility on Democratic calls for higher tax revenue, they have repeatedly insisted that changes to entitlement programs must be part of any deal. Obama, too, has all along advocated “a balanced approach” to the nation’s fiscal woes. Before talks with House Speaker John Boehner on a budget grand bargain fell apart in the summer of 2011, the president had been open to squeezing billions out of Medicare and Medicaid and changing the Social Security formula to slow the growth of benefits. Some Democratic lawmakers have also said they are willing to consider measures like raising the Medicare eligibility age or means-testing premiums.
“It’s going to be really hard, and a defining moment of his presidency,” said Gabe Horwitz, director of the economic program at Third Way, a centrist think tank advocating a grand bargain. “What I think is going to help keep the Democrats together is that there are a lot of liberal priorities … and the fact of the matter is, there won’t be any air in the room until the fiscal cliff is resolved.”
Still, if liberal groups are planning on eventually softening their stance on entitlements in favor of a deal, they’re giving no indication of that right now. Part of their insistence that entitlement benefits be left off the table is their conviction that voters sent a message in the election by rejecting the Republican prescription for trimming the budget.
The White House, for its part, while insisting on higher taxes for the wealthiest Americans, has said little about the president's position on entitlements—a source of frustration for some Obama administration allies.
“From our perspective we haven’t heard any assurances on anything on this point so we are continuing to put the pressure on to craft a deal that protects the middle class,” said Mary Kusler, director of government relations for the National Education Association.
Certner, too, said he did not have full confidence in the president’s position. “We don’t feel reassured enough that we’re going to be protecting beneficiaries,” he said.
Sheyman of Moveon.org said organizations like his have taken it upon themselves to let the administration and congressional Democrats know exactly where they stand.
“What the president has said is that he won’t allow a deal on the backs of seniors and the middle class,” he said. “We’re certainly going to make clear that what that language means is not cuts to these programs, showing members of Congress both in the House and Senate what that looks like is not cutting benefits.”
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