'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.

Charles Auer/The Waukesha Freeman/AP
US Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill, addresses supporters of President Barack Obama at the Waukesha, Wis. office of Obama For America, in October.

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.

“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.

“We have to look to reform and change that is significant, that preserves many of the values and programs that brought us to political life,” Sen. Durbin said. “We cannot believe that merely ignoring these programs or not engaging is going to solve the problem.”

Specifically, Durbin argued that those who love Medicare need to reckon with its future solvency – or lack thereof.

“Untouched, unamended, Medicare is going to run out of money in 12 years,” he said. “That is scary because we have so many Americans who count on it.”

He took a hard line with those in his party who would load the issue of deficit reduction solely onto the wealthy.

“We can’t be so naive as to believe that just taxing the rich is going to solve our problems,” Durbin said.

However, Durbin rejected outright Republican proposals to turn the future of Social Security and Medicare over to the private sector. And Social Security in particular should not be a part of debt reduction discussions at all, Durbin said, with its future solvency handled as part of a different reform effort.

In his attempts to persuade progressives to support entitlement reform, Durbin faces the challenge that, according to polls, Democratic voters are more amenable to the reforms if they are intended to maintain the solvency of the social safety net, and less so if the purpose is to cut spending as part of efforts to avoid going over the fiscal cliff.

Durbin’s prepared remarks attempted to ease the changes to Medicare and Medicaid out of the fiscal cliff conversation.

“Progressives should be willing to talk about ways to ensure the long-term viability of Medicare and Medicaid, but those conversations should not be part of a plan to avert the fiscal cliff,” the senator’s remarks read.

In person, Durbin did not offer that line, but his staff later confirmed the senator’s goal is to have entitlement and tax reform handled in 2013, outside the confines of the fiscal cliff. To minimize the immediate impact of the fiscal cliff, Durbin advocates legislation extending the Bush tax cuts to all but the wealthiest Americans.

That may not be accommodating enough for congressional Republicans, particularly a tough-minded faction in the House, who bitterly contest tax increases and desire significant changes to entitlement programs.

But progressives can’t simply deny the problem, Durbin said, because the deal to come will shape America’s federal finances for a decade or longer. And without liberals at the table and willing to negotiate on some of their most popular programs, that may not be a future they particularly like.

“The money we are borrowing to sustain our government is borrowed to sustain food stamps as well as missiles at the Pentagon,” he said. “And we ought to be thinking about that in terms of our values and our future."

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