POLITICS
03/12/2013 08:58 pm ET | Updated Mar 13, 2013

Obama's Senate Democrats Meeting: Progressives Fire Warning On Entitlement Reform

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama took a break during his offensive to charm Republican lawmakers open to a budget deal on Tuesday to assure his fellow Democrats he won't give away the store.

The president met with Senate Democrats during their weekly caucus lunch in what was, by nearly all accounts, a cordial affair -- several described it as borderline boring. Democratic senators said later they stood united with Obama behind a broad set of deficit-reduction principles.

But beneath the surface was potential friction. Some of the party's liberal stalwarts emerged from the meeting worried Obama would agree to deeper entitlement reforms than they, or Democrats at large, would find acceptable. Their words were a preemptive warning to the White House not to cave.

"He just said that he hopes that we can reach some kind of grand bargain, and of course some of us responded by saying yes, but what is in that grand bargain?" said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). "We don't want to start whacking away at Social Security or Medicare and things like that, which we have pathways to get out of this on, without putting it in some kind of a grand bargain that pulls the rug out from underneath our elderly or our sick, our needy. So we're cautioning him about that. Be careful about this grand bargain."

"I urged him not to cut Social Security and benefits for disabled veterans," added Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). "He is concerned about the long-term solvency about Social Security, and so am I. But I think he recognized there are different ways to approach it. You can bring more revenue into the program or you can cut benefits. Those are the two ways. At this point, I think he is more inclined to cut benefits, which I strongly disagree with. But I think he also understands that the other way is to increase revenue in a variety of ways."

At the White House later in the day, talk of potential unrest within the ranks was downplayed. Top administration officials, in a background briefing with reporters, said Democrats would always differ over deficit-reduction. But the party broadly agreed reform must be balanced. And as part of that approach, Obama and Senate Democratic leaders would not support entitlement reform changes without Republicans agreeing to additional revenues.

That commitment may suffice for now. But should Republicans actually sign off on additional revenues, the question becomes: How far will Obama bend on entitlements in return?

An administration official and a top Senate Democratic aide confirmed that the president voiced support for a budget proposal put together by Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.). That proposal, to be formally introduced on Wednesday, calls for $975 billion in additional revenues by closing loopholes and ending tax expenditures, $240 billion in defense spending cuts, $242 billion in reduced interest payments, and $493 billion in domestic cuts that include $275 billion from health care savings. Those savings would be used to replace the federal budget sequestration cuts.

Republicans are no more likely to accept that proposal than Democrats are to accept the deficit reduction plan introduced by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on Tuesday. Ryan's plan calls for heavy cuts to domestic spending, a voucher-like system for Medicare, block granting Medicaid and massive tax cuts Ryan insisted are revenue-neutral.

A deal -- if there is to be one -- will likely resemble something closer to that nearly negotiated twice between House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the administration. As it stands now, the White House still has an offer on the table that includes means-testing specific parts of Medicare, and a Social Security benefit cut by indexing payments to something called chained consumer price index.

A top administration official noted that increasing Medicare's eligibility age, which the president was willing to do in 2011, has been repeatedly ruled out of current negotiations. But Obama is scheduled to meet with House Republicans on Wednesday, and Senate Republicans on Thursday. The GOP members are expected to push Obama to broach the subject again.

Heading into those discussions, some Democrats said they lack a clear picture of exactly what Obama will and won't negotiate.

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said Tuesday that Obama didn't discuss how far he'll go to compromise, despite fielding a variety of questions on tax and entitlement reform, and budget negotiations over the course of 90 minutes. Harkin said he heard no firm commitment from the president that outlined Social Security and Medicare measures would be off the table with Republicans. An administration official countered that the president was never asked to draw such lines. A source in the room said Harkin's remarks were more of a speech about the dangers of reducing entitlement program benefits than they were a question to Obama.

Nonetheless, some senators argued there was no reason Obama shouldn't pursue a grand bargain with Republicans, so long as he doesn't negotiate away the principles the party campaigned on over the last year. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) expressed optimism in Obama's ability to broker a deal that achieves his vision, while still extracting some kind of compromise from GOP lawmakers.

"He thinks it’s very important that we solve these problems together, and he said that working together with Republicans in terms of getting a grand bargain or a major dent in this issue is critically important," Levin said. "But compromise is essential, and he hasn’t seen enough of it from them, but he’s also going to continue trying."

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