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Obama risks losing the left by considering entitlement cuts

WASHINGTON — Medicare and Social Security are on the negotiating table. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party — led by Rep. Keith Ellison’s Progressive Caucus — is vehemently opposed.

Rep. Keith Ellison
REUTERS/Eric Miller
Rep. Keith Ellison

Leading the way was Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison’s Progressive Caucus, which announced they’d sent a letter to Obama with a simple ultimatum: cut Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security spending and you’ve lost our votes.

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The letter said reform for to the programs should come in the form of “well-conceived improvements, not deep, ideologically driven cuts with harmful consequences.”

“Cutting core benefits for recipients, changing eligibility standards, reducing the amount of money for the program … all bad ideas,” Ellison said.

Both Ellison and Minnesota Sen. Al Franken pointed to one way to cut Medicare costs without affecting benefits: allow Medicare to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies over the price of prescription drugs. Franken estimates such a measure would save $24 billion a year.

“That could go straight to paying off the debt,” he said in a Thursday speech on the Senate floor. “There. I got you a $240 billion cut [over 10 years] to Medicare. Now can we please vote to raise the debt ceiling and avert a worldwide economic catastrophe?”

But Ellison said he would take the lead on opposing any plan with broader cuts.

Sen. Al Franken
REUTERS/Rich Clement
Sen. Al Franken

“Not only am I not going to vote for it, I am going to whip my caucus as hard as I can to persuade them not to support it,” he said.

No deficit negotiators have said exactly how they expect to extract savings from those — or any other — programs. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was coy when asked what cuts might specifically be part of a deficit reduction package. She would only reiterate that she told fellow negotiators how strongly House Democrats— beyond just the Progressive Caucus — feels about the issue.

“Their views have been heard and very strongly so,” she said. “I think the president wants a bipartisan bill and I think that the Democrats stand ready to help…but we want to do so without hurting our seniors or people with a disability.”

Rank-and-file try to influence negotiations
The White House has said the programs are on the table in an effort to help spur a deficit reduction deal with Republicans.

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“[There is a] greater good here that needs to be reached for, which is significant agreement on deficit reduction created by an opportunity that does not come very often and has not come in Washington since the mid-’90s, and that that is good for America, it’s good for Democrats and it’s good for Republicans, and that we ought to do it,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday. “I mean, really, the message is not very complicated. The issues here have been substantive and not political because this is really a case where good policy is good politics.”

But as Democrats take a hard stand against cuts to entitlement programs and Republicans continue to push back against calls for more revenue, it’s become difficult to see how negotiators can hatch a plan that is agreeable for everyone.

Franken said that in the end, threats to vote down a plan because of any of its potential provisions is just the easiest way for rank-and-file members of Congress to try and influence conversations at the negotiating table.

“I think everyone is trying to apply pressure anywhere they can,” he said in an interview. “Ultimately, we’ve got to come to some agreement. We just do.”

Progressive Caucus Vice-Chair Sheila Jackson Lee said that any plan with deep entitlement cuts could still pass Congress, if all of the Republicans banded together to support the measure. “If Republican leadership can find votes in their own caucus to pass such a deal, let them do it,” Lee said at a press conference.

But such a strategy would require incredible party discipline from Republicans, a caucus that has seen splintering on issues from opposing the mission in Libya to passing a final 2011 budget. If the final deficit reduction plan includes any type of revenue increases — be it increased taxes or, more likely, the end of some tax code loopholes — it’s anticipated that a share of House Democrats would need to sign on to the legislation to give it enough votes to pass.

So if a significant faction of that party is opposing a bill with large entitlement cuts, such cuts could sink the plan.

“I think Democrats in the House … I think we do have more leverage than people anticipate,” Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Raul Grijalva said. “Without overwhelming support from our caucus, its going to be a hard deal to pass … We’re not trying to be the skunk at the garden party in these negotiations … What I do feel is that there is a huge opinion in our base about protecting these programs. I think it merits listening to.”