Paul Ryan’s Wednesday Wall Street Journal op-ed was perhaps the starkest sign of a striking shift: a government shutdown and debt ceiling showdown pitched by Tea Party members to be about blocking Obamacare is being framed by GOP leaders as a push towards “entitlement reform.” In Wednesday interviews, leaders of liberal groups commended the president’s consistent insistence on not offering new budget concessions in exchange for reopening the government or averting debt default. But they pledged an all-out effort to defeat Social Security or Medicare cuts if Obama offers them once again after the default threat is delayed. GOP leaders’ push for a six-week debt ceiling increase suggests that moment could come very soon.
Charles Chamberlain, who directs the Dean campaign offshoot Democracy For America, told Salon that it would be “a huge mistake” for Obama to once again push the Social Security cut called “chained CPI,” and the president would “face a gigantic amount of opposition from progressives nationwide” if he did. Still, said Chamberlain, “he put her on the table once before. I don’t think he’s going to take it off.”
As I noted last week, President Obama has repeatedly touted chained CPI – a proposed change in cost of living calculations that would cut future Social Security payments – as something that both demonstrates his willingness to compromise and advances his commitment to Social Security’s future. In his press conference Tuesday, the president reiterated that he’d “put forward proposals in my budget to reform entitlement programs for the long haul…” While reaffirming that he wouldn’t “pay a ransom for America paying its bills,” Obama said he was “absolutely” willing to negotiate following passage of even a short-term debt ceiling increase, and that Republicans could “attach some process to that that gives them some certainty that in fact the things they’re concerned about will be topics of negotiation, if my word’s not good enough.”
Syracuse University Professor Eric Kingson, who advised presidential commissions on Social Security under Reagan and Clinton, said he took from Obama's public comments that “the implicit deal” is that once Republicans lift the debt ceiling and re-open the government, the White House “will be very willing to trade off a piece of Social Security.” Kingson is co-director of Social Security Works, a coalition of three hundred organizations opposed to benefit cuts.
Twenty congressional Democrats joined a rally against chained CPI last week. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) told Salon Wednesday that he was “very concerned” about the president’s support for cuts including chained CPI, which he called an “absurd proposal.” His colleague Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) said last week that chained CPI was “not prudent policy”; asked if she’d oppose any budget deal that included it, Baldwin told Salon “there’s no need for it to be on the table.”
But the partisan politics of chained CPI are more complex than those surrounding the Affordable Care Act. As Salon’s Brian Beutler noted this morning, cuts to Social Security are unpopular with many of the same Tea Party voters eager to see a repeal of the healthcare law (recall that Ryan, who’d previously bragged to conservatives that his Medicare plan would “take five percentage points of the economy and give it back to the private sector,” attacked Obama in 2012 for allegedly raiding Medicare to fund Obamacare). Some of the same Republicans urging Obama to offer chained CPI have taken pains to frame it as his proposal rather than their own; others have stuck to more general exhortations to “reform” or “strengthen” entitlements.
Meanwhile, the president’s support appears to have tempered opposition to Social Security cuts within the Democratic Caucus. A work-in-progress whip count from Social Security Works so far counts a dozen Democrats in the Senate and 46 in the House whose statements suggest they would oppose any deal including chained CPI (not among them: Democratic congressional leaders Harry Reid, Dick Durbin, Nancy Pelosi, and Steny Hoyer).
Kingson called the threat level facing Social Security “orange, on the way to red,” given the potential for a “Nixon to China situation” in which Obama gets congressional Democrats to support cuts they might have opposed under President Bush. Given that politicians of both parties have pledged not to cut benefits for current Social Security recipients, said Kingson, Democrats and Republicans could try to insulate themselves by deciding to “all jump forward together and break promises to the American public.”
If that happens, Congressman Ted Deutch warned last week, “We’re telling hungry seniors, ‘You’re not pinching your pennies hard enough…Skip more meals, don’t fill all of your prescriptions.’” Noting his group’s calculation that an average person retiring at 65 would lose close to $14,000 by age 85 under chained CPI, Kingson told Salon, “I suppose you consider that a tweak in Washington, but in the real world $14,000 dollars lost is huge.” Kingson said he hopes the combination of public opposition, union activism, online advocacy, and congressional “survival instincts” would avert the cut.
Ilya Sheyman, who directs MoveOn.org Political Action, told Salon he was “cautiously optimistic” that congressional Democrats would defeat chained CPI, given that “there is zero hunger” for it from the public. DFA’s Chaimberlain went further: “I really think it’s a non-starter in Congress.”
Both men warned that pushing chained CPI could wipe out what they called a very real chance for Democrats to ride a wave of anti-GOP backlash and take back the House next year. Noting polling showing public opposition to “having the whole economy and government held hostage to trying to roll back Obamacare,” Sheyman said, “the surest way to erase those votes would be for anyone to entertain cutting Social Security and Medicare like this, which would have that same level of outrage, if not more.”
The prospect of pairing a shutdown, which the farthest-right Republicans extracted from party leaders, with an “entitlement” fight in which a Democratic president defies his party’s liberal wing may be the freshest illustration of the asymmetries of US.. politics. Asked how the Left’s leverage within the Democratic Party compares to the Right’s within the GOP, Senator Baldwin said “it has to do with the view that one has on the responsibility to govern,” in that Tea Party members have wielded an apparent willingness to “allow the government to default on its debts…” Fellow progressive Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) told Salon last month he didn’t know why the president supported cutting Social Security payments rather than increasing them. “But it’s up to me to build public opinion,” he added, “and get the president there.”