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'Fiscal cliff': Can a liberal senator sell entitlement reform to Democrats?

Sen. Dick Durbin, in a speech Tuesday, said progressives cannot stay on the sidelines of the 'fiscal cliff' debate and must be ready to make changes to treasured programs like Medicare.

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Sen. Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois, one of Congress’s leading liberals, laid out the progressive case for getting on board with a grand bargain that restructures both American taxing and spending – including some of the left’s sacred entitlement programs – in a speech Tuesday at the liberal Center for American Progress in Washington.

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“Progressives cannot afford to stand on the sidelines in this fiscal cliff debate and to deny the obvious,” Senator Durbin said. “I think we need to be part of this conversation, which means we need to be open to some topics and some issues that are painful and hard for us to talk about.”

His speech comes at a time when liberal organizations, including labor unions and groups representing senior citizens, are running advertisements urging Democratic lawmakers not to make any cuts to entitlement programs, including Medicare and Social Security, in the context of avoiding the “fiscal cliff.”

The cliff, allowing the economy to endure some $600 billion in higher taxes and lower spending scheduled to hit beginning Jan. 1, would send the US economy back into a recession for the year, congressional budget analysts estimate.

Some Republican lawmakers have shown a willingness to consider the higher tax revenues that President Obama and Democrats seek – but only if paired with reforms to entitlement programs like Medicare, which already consumes a fifth of the federal budget.

Liberal groups have fought back, leaving progressives like Durbin in a strange spot. His tenure in the trenches negotiating an encompassing framework for cutting America’s debt and deficits in part through entitlement changes stretches back to the original presidential commission on debt in 2010 (whose output became known as the Simpson-Bowles plan) and on through the bipartisan “Gang of Six” senators who strove to hammer out a compromise plan right up to the November election.

On Tuesday, he argued that liberals risked having their views ignored if they hewed to promises to never touch entitlements or other government programs dear to Democrats.

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