House Democrats came away from a closed-door meeting with President Obama on Thursday expressing openness to his proposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare, after he assured them he would never cut entitlement benefits unless Republicans yield on tax increases.
After the meeting with Obama, several key Democrats expressed an openness to entitlement benefit cuts as part of a broader budget bill that includes higher taxes. Their statements run counter to the hoary conventional wisdom in Washington that Democrats are just as stubbornly opposed to cutting safety net spending as Republicans are to higher taxes.
“I’m willing to keep my powder dry until I see what’s on the table,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) told reporters. “It’s the context that matters to me. I’m not willing to absolutely rule anything in or out. … But I’m not willing to give anything away for free.”
“I’m certainly willing to listen,” said Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. “I would be willing to listen if he says there are some exceptions. So whether you could do a Chained CPI and exempt those who live under a certain income — I don’t know. We haven’t taken it very seriously right now in our caucus.”
The two major benefit cuts Obama has publicly offered Republicans are a reduction in the growth of Social Security benefits via a policy known as Chained CPI, and further means-testing of Medicare, which would require higher-income seniors to pay for a larger share of their health care cost.
In an important indication of where Democrats stand, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) told reporters after the meeting Thursday that as long as “Chained CPI does not hurt the poor or the very old, then it is something to put on the table.”
Some liberals in the caucus, like Reps. Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Jerry Nadler (D-NY), say they strongly oppose any such cuts to entitlement benefits. But even they openly admit that a significant number of Democrats likely won’t join their opposition.
“First of all, we have a diverse caucus,” Nadler said. “I imagine there are a fair number of people [who agree with Obama]. Well, 107 of us signed a letter saying we don’t like Chained CPI. That means a hundred others, roughly, didn’t sign the letter. … Some of them didn’t sign the letter because they didn’t agree with the letter. So you can’t assume the entire Democratic caucus disagrees with the president, though some of us clearly do.”
A separate letter to Obama vowing to “vote against any and every cut to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security benefits,” has just 30 Democratic signatories.
Connolly candidly explained that for most Democrats, the decision on whether to support Obama on Medicare means-testing and Chained CPI comes down to how they’re framed.
“These issues — it depends on how you choose to frame them, what your frame of reference is,” Connolly said. “So if you define [means testing] or the Chained CPI as a benefit cut, that violates all that is sacred to the Democratic Party. If you truly believe it can save some money and is simply a technical change in how we formulate and calculate the cost of living … and if that saves the program or if that extends the program for 10 or 15 years, is that a horrible thing? … So that’s how [Obama] phrased it, and that’s how some Democrats will frame it.”
On that score, Pelosi has for months been refuting the notion that Chained CPI constitutes a Social Security benefit cut. “No, I don’t” consider it a benefit cut, she said in December when Obama floated the idea in fiscal cliff talks. “I consider it a strengthening of Social Security.”
Sahil Kapur is a congressional reporter for TPM. He previously covered politics and public policy for numerous publications including The Guardian and The Huffington Post. He can be reached at sahil [at] talkingpointsmemo.com.