WASHINGTON -- A leading national progressive figure is taking a rare step on Thursday, challenging House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on her commitment to protecting Medicare and Social Security.
Russ Feingold, the former senator from Wisconsin, said in an email to supporters that Pelosi "has signaled a disturbing potential willingness to adopt a plan that could slash these benefits. And it follows a pattern: Too many House Democrats, including Steny Hoyer, are already on board."
Feingold's challenge, sent to backers of his group Progressives United, comes after Pelosi has repeatedly said that she would vote in favor of the Simpson-Bowles plan, a deficit cutting project that slashes Social Security and Medicare, while raising revenue and cutting defense spending. The progressive online organization CREDO Action will also be sending an email to its supporters backing up Feingold's challenge.
A spokesman for Pelosi was not immediately available for comment Thursday.
The co-chairs of the fiscal commission that created the plan -- former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming and Morgan Stanley director Erskin Bowles, a Democrat -- have worked recently to revive it, though the plan failed to win the necessary votes from the commission to move to a vote in Congress.
Eric Kingson, co-director of Social Security Works, said last week he was worried that Pelosi was making a dangerous gamble: By publicly backing Simpson-Bowles, she is able to make Republicans look that much more intransigent for not meeting her in the middle.
But the consequence is that Pelosi is on record in favor of drastic cuts, a difficult position to defend in an election year, and Republicans have something to hold her to if they return to the table after the election. Only then, they may attempt to drag Democrats even further in their direction.
"I hope that support for Bowles-Simpson is not part of the congressional Democrats strategy to embarrass their Republican colleagues who they can be sure will not support Bowles-Simpson because it contains some tax increases," Kingson told HuffPost.
Feingold flatly rejected the idea. "Cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security benefits are unacceptable, and they shouldn't be put on the table by Democrats for any reason -- including cynical, political ones," he said. "Leader Pelosi must stand up for these crucial programs."
UPDATE: Pelosi responded later Thursday in a tweet:
ICYMI I've spent my career protecting Social Security, Medicare & Medicaid from GOP attacks-nothing's changed, I will continue fighting.
— Nancy Pelosi (@NancyPelosi) May 3, 2012
Read Feingold's full email, an advance copy of which was provided to HuffPost:
From: Russ Feingold
Subject: Where's Pelosi on Medicare?
For years, wealthy individual and corporate interests have used the influence they've bought in Washington to make privatizing Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, and getting their hands on the resources devoted to those programs, a national priority.
Yet, these are three of America's most successful programs, and they're especially critical to poor and working families who depend on them in their retirement, or if they become disabled. Gutting Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security benefits, seen as a significant step in the privatization effort, would be disastrous for millions of families.
Recently, Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has signaled a disturbing potential willingness to adopt a plan that could slash these benefits. And it follows a pattern: Too many House Democrats, including Steny Hoyer, are already on board.
Cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security benefits are unacceptable, and they shouldn't be put on the table by Democrats for any reason -- including cynical, political ones. Leader Pelosi must stand up for these crucial programs.
Tell Leader Pelosi to stand strong against any benefit cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security now, before this talk goes any further:
Over the years, Leader Pelosi has been one of progressives' strongest allies in the House when it comes to protecting Medicare and fighting off privatization schemes for Social Security.
Now Republicans, led by Congressman Paul Ryan and powered by corporate campaign money, are on a new crusade to destroy these vital programs.
But these cuts to America's safety net will shield the 1% from pressure to pay their fair share -- keeping the burden squarely on the backs of working families. We can't accept cuts to these critical benefits. And any Democratic endorsement of benefit cuts, even for political reasons, capitulates on bedrock progressive values and makes it easier for corporate Democrats to join with corporate Republicans to destroy these programs.
Ask Leader Pelosi to unite with you and her fellow progressives to firmly reject any benefit cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security now:
Progressives have stood up to the false choice presented by corporate interests before. We told Democrats on the deficit reduction super committee to walk away from a deal that would cut Medicare and Social Security benefits, and the deal fell apart.
Now, we need to unite again. We can make the difference together this time, too.
Thanks for uniting as a progressive,
This story has been updated to include CREDO Action's plans and Nancy Pelosi's response.