With less than seven full days left before its deadline, the deficit-cutting “super committee” appears to be at an impasse, now focusing on how far Democrats are willing to go to roll back entitlement spending.
The six Republicans on the 12-member deficit-reduction committee have already offered what they say amounts to $250 billion in increased tax revenues – a risky political move because it violates an antitax pledge that most GOP lawmakers have signed. Now, they say, it’s time for Democrats to take comparable political risks on entitlements.
But for Democrats, support for entitlements is as much of a litmus test as tax cuts are for Republicans, and the super committee Democrats’ rank-and-file colleagues, as well as powerful outside groups, are turning on the heat to resist entitlement cuts.
So far, the Democrats don’t appear to be budging. Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington, who cochairs the panel, said Thursday that Democrats are still waiting for Republicans to make further concessions on revenue, or tax hikes.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi says Democrats have shown a capacity to reform entitlements when they cut $500 billion in Medicare spending as part of the 2010 health-care reform. But “if the plan is to extend the Bush tax cuts and to repeal the Medicare guarantee for our seniors, well, that's not balanced and that's a place we cannot go,” she said at a press briefing on Thursday.
Individual Democrats on the panel, most notably Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, have discussed the prospect of raising the eligibility age for Medicare or charging more to those who can afford it, but only if Republicans agree to more robust tax hikes, according to unconfirmed accounts of the deliberations.
But GOP leaders on and off the super committee say Democrats have yet to rally around a proposal. “There is only one proposal on the table in the committee, and that came from the six Republican members that outlined what we’d be willing to do,” said House Speaker John Boehner at a briefing on Thursday.
“There have been discussions amongst individual members, but it’s very clear to me that there has never been a Democratic position – not one. Not one time have they coalesced around a plan,” he added.
But even the prospect of cuts to entitlements is a red flag to many Democrats, wary that support for entitlement cuts by Democrats on the super committee breaks faith with seniors and jeopardizes prospects for Democrats to hold the Senate or take back the House in 2012.
At a packed briefing on Thursday – replete with alarm clock props – top Senate liberals sought to send a message to the super committee to “wake up!” on the need to protect Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid from deficit cuts.
“Welcome to Occupy the Super Committee!” Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland shouted in a Senate hearing room packed with activists who also lined the halls waiting to get into Thursday’s “town hall meeting” in defense of Social Security and Medicare.
“We are here today to send a message to the super committee, Congress, and the president of the United States: Do not cut Social Security, do not cut Medicare, and do not cut Medicaid,” said Sen. Bernard Sanders (I) of Vermont, who organized the event, in a statement.
“Unfortunately, Republicans in Congress and too many Democrats have been discussing harmful cuts to Social Security as part of an overall scheme to balance the budget on the backs of the elderly, the sick, children, and working families. That is wrong, it is unconscionable, and it must not happen,” he added.
Pro-entitlement activists say they, too, aren’t sure where Democrats on the super committee may be headed on entitlement reform. “It’s very difficult to know what’s going on,” says Webster Phillips, senior legislative representative for the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSS). “Is all this talk about entitlement reform a smokescreen or a change in someone’s position?
“We’re here to strengthen their resolve in staying the course on some of these important programs,” he adds. “We want to make sure that everyone knows how unpopular cutting Social Security is.” The NCPSS is releasing a poll this week showing that 72 percent of Americans oppose proposed changes to the formula for determining the cost of living increases, a proposal said to be at issue in super committee deliberations.
In a floor speech on Thursday, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) of Ohio called on the super committee to raise the cost-of-living adjustment for seniors on Social Security by creating a new formula that takes into account their higher health costs. Such a change could mean an additional $887 for seniors on Social Security, he said.
“Conservatives who don’t much like Social Security ... will say we can’t afford this," he said. "[But] Social Security is not part of this budget deficit.”
In another move to turn up the heat on super committee Democrats, MoveOn.org Political Action launched a 30-second television ad on morning cable talk shows for the next week targeting Democrats on the super committee. “Don’t be stupid, be Democrats,” the ad says. “And Democrats don’t cut Medicare.”
Meanwhile, Republicans face new pushback in their own ranks over concessions on taxes. On Thursday, 72 House Republicans called on the super committee in a letter not to raise taxes.
“Raising taxes will only further damage the economy, discourage private-sector investment, and hurt Americans struggling to make ends meet,” Rep. Patrick McHenry (R) of North Carolina, who sponsored the letter drive, said in a statement. “We’re not here to be the tax collector for the welfare state,” he added, in an interview.
In a campaign update on Nov. 16, Rep. Steve Israel of New York, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, reported that Democrats have had a 10-point turnaround from where they were in November 2010 and are now leading the generic ballot on whether voters prefer Democrats or Republicans to control the Congress – in part, because of Democratic firmness on support of Social Security and Medicare.
“Voters are connecting with Democrats’ message about reigniting the American Dream,” he said. “They know we are fighting for them, not tax loopholes. They know that we will protect Medicare and Social Security, and that we are working to help small businesses create good paying jobs.”