WASHINGTON -- President Obama's vision of a grand deal on raising the nation's debt ceiling may have been scrapped by a skittish Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). But as the details of the arrangement trickle out, it seems increasingly likely that congressional Democrats would have presented their own set of political difficulties to the administration.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has insisted throughout the debt ceiling debate that her caucus would oppose any proposal that included benefit cuts to Medicare and Social Security recipients. On Monday, The Huffington Post reported that Obama's deal would have done just that, raising the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67.
A Democratic official familiar with the discussions sought to defend the proposal shortly after the news broke, explaining that the age would be raised gradually over time (ending in 2036). The official also stressed that the effect on seniors would have been mitigated by reforms implemented under the president's health care law.
"Obviously one of the reasons why that is something the president was willing to put on the table is the Affordable Care Act, because there would be a place for people who are not working or covered [to] have a chance to have tax subsidies to help pay for an exchange," the official said. "So that, for him, was a critical consideration in being open to that idea and obviously these were things that were on the table."
This is, as several health care officials noted, a generous reading of the law's reach. On the more immediate political front, it did not seem to give Democratic lawmakers a sense of assurance. On Tuesday, Pelosi re-affirmed her position on entitlement reform. And while several top lieutenants deflected questions on the matter -- "In all of these discussions, there is nothing on the table unless everything is on the table," Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) said. "We have not seen the details of what the president is talking about there, but we inherently trust our leadership and the president to do the right thing" -- others were more candid with their take.
"There won't be any Democratic votes for that," Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) told The Huffington Post when asked about a bill that raised Medicare's eligibility age. "There will be almost no Democratic votes for anything like that under any circumstances. Medicare and Social Security, as Nancy said, are not on this table. We may lose some other programs ... but we're not going to use Medicare or Social Security in any way to impact the deficit."
One of the caucus' most pugnacious liberal voices, Nadler is also a Pelosi ally. While his take on the debt ceiling talks may be posture, he insisted that there were "lines" that Democrats would not cross. "[W]e're not going to let any decrease or change in benefits for Medicare or Social Security, whatsoever, period," he said.
In the end, the talk of Medicare eligibility may be moot. The president has not brought it up in closed-door meetings with Republicans since Speaker Boehner scrapped grand bargain negotiations on Saturday evening. And while the president has urged lawmakers to revisit the idea, more attention has been paid to building off of a smaller package created under the direction of Vice President Joseph Biden.
Still, there was general surprise (or concern) among Democrats on Tuesday morning over just how much the president had been prepared to give up in negotiations with Boehner. In addition to entitlement reforms, the White House, as The Washington Post's Ezra Klein noted, was willing to make major concessions on revenues when compared to both current law and proposals put forth by the president's own deficit commission.
With Reporting By Elise Foley
UPDATE: Greg Sargent at The Washington Post reports that Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) is introducing a proposal that would amend the federal retirement system to make the Social Security retirement age the point at which current and future members of Congress get access to their own federal retirement benefits. The underlying point: If lawmakers are going to meddle with entitlement programs, they will personally feel the consequences.