WASHINGTON -- Progressives in Congress are largely holding their fire at the White House over reports that President Obama is considering deep Social Security and Medicare cuts as part of a debt ceiling deal. Cuts to entitlement programs have been floating for several weeks around the edges of the conversation, but moved to the center of the debate Thursday morning, when a report that Obama would offer to "tackle the rising cost of Social Security" appeared on the front page of the Washington Post. Liberals outside of Congress, however, are wasting no time trying to pop that trial balloon.
Ahead of a meeting with House and Senate leadership, in which President Barack Obama is expected to voice willingness to change entitlement programs, a dozen members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus wrote a letter to the president asking him to refuse cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The president is set to discuss a deal to raise the debt ceiling in exchange for deficit reduction, which could include major cuts to programs that help the elderly and the poor.
"We feel the discussions have been skewed up to this point," said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chair of the caucus, who also said he would not support a final deal if it involves entitlement cuts and does not include revenue-raisers. "It's incumbent upon the president to put what I believe are the real priorities on the table for deficit reduction."
But Grijalva and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), a vice chair of the caucus, defended the president for signaling he would be willing to take a look at changes to the programs, arguing there are ways to restructure entitlement spending to save money without hurting beneficiaries.
Other Democrats have made a similar shift over the past two weeks, as lawmakers strain to find a deal that raises revenues while at the same time making spending cuts. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), a top message-maker for Senate Democrats, said on June 24 that Democrats would be open to delivery-side reforms to Medicare, which they have previously said should be kept off the table.
Grijalva said Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid could be "strengthened" by raising taxes on the wealthy, requiring higher contributions for employers or buying prescription drugs in bulk.
"There's restructuring issues ... that could be looked at, absolutely," he said. "But the bottom line is that cuts and reductions to beneficiaries, if that's part of the package, then I cannot support it."
Politico had reported that the progressive members of Congress were "furious" at President Obama, but none of that fury was evident either in their press conference or their letter to the White House.
Jackson Lee said the heat should remain on Republicans who want to take down Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- not on the president, because they are still unsure of what changes he will propose.
"We should not let them define the agenda," she told HuffPost. "The president has done something heroic to convene everybody. ... We don't want to get into a mish-mash with the president of the United States when he is clearly on the side of the most vulnerable."
Lee said the president's heart is with the poor, basing that judgment on Obama's background as a community organizer in Chicago before he became a state politician.
"I think the fight must be with the hobgoblin, the ghost, the fear that has been set up by the Republicans to make people think that what is most valuable to the poor can be on the table," she said.
UPDATE 12:48 a.m.: Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), ranking member of the House Budget Committee, echoed the statements of Grijalva and Jackson Lee on CNN, saying he does not think the president wants to make major cuts to entitlement programs.
"What we have said is that if the president wants to adopt a separate track, just as Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan did in the 1980s, to strengthen Social Security, that's one thing," he said. "But to try and balance the budget on the backs of Social Security beneficiaries would be unacceptable and I'm pretty confident that is not what the president is referring to."
Meanwhile, progressives outside the Capitol decried reports that the president wants to put cuts on the table.
"This isn't a Grand Bargain -- any cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security benefits are a grand destruction of the Democratic legacy," Stephanie Taylor, co-Founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said in a statement.
The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare also hit the White House for looking at Social Security cuts.
"AARP will not accept any cuts to Social Security as part of a deal to pay the nation's bills," said AARP CEO A. Barry Rand. "Social Security did not cause the deficit, and it should not be cut to reduce a deficit it did not cause. As the President and Congress work to negotiate a deal to raise the debt ceiling, AARP urges all lawmakers to reject any proposals that would cut the benefits seniors have earned through a lifetime of hard work."