WASHINGTON -- On Wednesday evening, many lawmakers were surprised to find out that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid cuts would be on the table for a grand compromise between the White House and Republicans over raising the debt ceiling.
They had been speaking out against changes to the programs for months, arguing entitlements should be left out of the debt limit deal entirely and berating Republicans for making cuts to programs a part of their 2012 budget proposal.
But by Thursday morning, most House Democrats refrained from directly criticizing the president for planning to include entitlement programs in negotiations. Instead, they settled on another position: Changes to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are permissible so long as they shore up the programs to be stronger later. Cuts to beneficiaries will not be allowed. And while it is unclear what specific changes the president is proposing, so far, there seems to be no reason for concern.
It wasn't a total reversal -- Democrats maintained that they would not vote for a final deal that makes cuts to beneficiaries of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Still, few objected, at least publicly, to the line in the sand on entitlement programs disappearing, or to the fact that it was the president who washed it away.
"When you say Social Security is 'on the table,' it's been on the table all the time," Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) told The Huffington Post. "In the Biden talks we talked about whether we ought to do something like raising the caps. If you raise the caps it's a whole lot different than raising the retirement age."
Clyburn opened the door to means-testing, which would reduce or eliminate benefits for wealthy individuals based on income levels.
"That's the kind of stuff we ought to look at," he said. "Don't get nervous about Social Security being on the table -- that could very well be what the president is talking about, and I hope that's what the president is talking about."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who will meet with Obama on Friday to discuss the deal, also affirmed on Thursday that Democrats will not support cuts in benefits.
Several Hill Democrats told The Huffington Post Thursday that the president had made it clear to leadership that he wanted a large-scale approach to dealing with the debt, and that they should get comfortable with the idea.
The details of the deal to come, though, remain scant, and Democrats seem unresolved over what to do next.
A Democratic source with knowledge of ongoing discussions said on Thursday that Democrats are attempting to push for $1 trillion of a $4 trillion-deal to come from revenues, rather than spending cuts, a figure well beyond what could come from closing loopholes or ending subsidies.
The ongoing discussions may, however, involve achieving those revenues outside of any specific deal to raise the debt ceiling, meaning that lawmakers will be forced to fill in the blanks down the road.
"Any discussion of Medicare or Social Security should be on its own table. I have said that before," Pelosi said at a press conference. "When we take a look at Social Security, then look at it on its own table. But do not consider Social Security a piggy bank for giving tax cuts to the wealthiest people in our country."
Still, she acknowledged that some changes to the programs could gather support from her caucus, as did other leading House Democrats.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, did not dismiss the idea that reforms could be made to Medicare's provider system, speaking specifically about achieving savings by directly negotiating for a better deal on prescription drugs for Medicare.
In a phone interview with The Huffington Post, however, he offered a blunt political warning to the White House about the potential to lose votes.
"No one should expect that House Democrats are going to blindly support any deal," said Van Hollen.
The congressman acknowledged (indeed, seemed a bit sympathetic to the idea) that the administration had walked back the news that it was considering Social Security cuts as part of a debt ceiling package. "But we have been very clear that we are not going to balance the budget on the backs of Social Security beneficiaries," he said.
"If you want to do something to strengthen Social Security, you do that on a separate track like Ronald Reagan or Tip O'Neill did."
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