"Ready for dinner"
If the president offered up entitlement reforms, but no one but his increasingly annoyed friends seemed to notice, would it make a grand bargain? That’s the predicament Barack Obama finds himself in as he works towards ending sequestration and finding a comprehensive compromise to reduce the deficit that he seems to have his mind set on.
Later today, he’ll meet with House Republicans for the first time in two years in what is sure to be a tense summit. But his meeting yesterday with Senate Democrats had its own antagonism, according to reports, as liberal Democrats hammered the president over his offer to cut social safety net entitlement programs
The Hill’s Alex Bolton and Justin Sink report that while Democrats, including Majority Leader Harry Reid, warned the president that he couldn’t count on their support for Social Security cuts, “Obama stood firm.”
“Most of the conversation I caught was on Social Security,” Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy said of the closed-door meeting. Obama has proposed shaving benefits by changing the way inflation is calculated in Social Security cost of living adjustments to the so-called chained or superlative CPI.
Obama’s proposal sparked uproar among his allies on Capitol Hill when he announced it months ago. Since then, progressive lawmakers have worked to build a bulwark of votes against such changes. More than half of the Democrats in the House have promised not to cut entitlements. “‘Chained CPI’ is just a fancy way to say ‘cut benefits for seniors, the permanently disabled, and orphans,’” Sen. Elizabeth Warren told Salon last week.
Even favorable noises on so-called entitlement cuts from Democrats are non-committal. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a member of the Democratic leadership team, said this morning on “Morning Joe” that his party would be willing to “look at” means testing Medicare if Republicans meet them halfway on other issues, but that’s a big “if” for a tepid commitment.
So what does Obama get for all this heat from his own side? A willingness to compromise from Republicans? Acknowledgement that he’s going out on a limb to try to reach the conservative goal of deficit reduction? Of course not!
Perhaps today’s meeting with the House GOP will go differently, but so far Republicans have been unmoved by Obama’s offer — some even profess ignorance of it. According to Ezra Klein, “one of the most respected Republicans in Congress” (who went unnamed) refused to believe that Obama had even offered chained CPI in a recent background briefing with reporters. “I’d love to see it,” the legislator laughed when a reporter brought up Obama’s offer.
And you can hardly blame them, considering how poor of a job the media has done until very recently of noticing the fact that Obama has put Social Security cuts on the table. Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen, Politico’s top brass, report today that Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham could envision a grand bargain emerging “if Democrats put specific entitlement cuts on the table.” VandeHei and Allen apparently didn’t tell Graham that Obama has in fact proposed specific entitlement cuts. It’s right on the White House website.
“The President will get enough Republicans on a grand bargain if he tackles entitlements and the deal is big,” commented MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough this week. Again, the plan released this year is right on the White House website.
Other Republicans say that they don’t think Obama is “serious” about entitlement reform, or that his offer isn’t big enough.
The danger for Obama in heeding this complaint and going even bigger is that if Republicans are not actually interested in a deal that cuts “entitlements,” as VandeHei and Allen and others suggest may the case, then Obama could find him alone as the negotiating table, the only person in Washington who has proposed specific entitlement cuts. Those cuts happen to be super unpopular with voters. Republicans attacked him on entitlement cuts during the 2012 campaign (Medicare savings to fund Obamacare) and probably wouldn’t be above doing again.
On the other hand, even if Obama doesn’t win the policy and get the “grand bargain” he seems to genuinely want, he may win on the politics by looking like a compromiser who has made every effort to find common ground with Republicans, even if it meant getting slammed by his own party, only to be rebuffed by an intransigent opposition. Maybe that’s been his goal all along.
Alex Seitz-Wald is Salon's political reporter. Email him at email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter @aseitzwald.More Alex Seitz-Wald.