POLITICS

Obama's Social Security Cut Proposal Sparks Backlash, Threats Of Primary Contests

04/05/2013 01:48 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2013

WASHINGTON -- Progressive-leaning groups reacted quickly and angrily to news that President Barack Obama is proposing cuts to Social Security, going so far as to threaten to mount primary challenges against congressional Democrats who sign on to Obama's plan.

The White House Friday offered details of a compromise budget plan that would seek to cut deficits by $1.8 trillion over 10 years, including raising some $600 billion in revenue and making $1.2 trillion in new cuts. Among those cuts would be some $400 billion in health care savings and more than $100 billion from trimming cost of living increases to Social Security.

Such Social Security cuts start small, but escalate over time and eventually add up to thousands of dollars for people who rely on the safety net program. Preserving the program has long been a touchstone issue for the Democratic base, and gained special, fresh significance for activists after 2005, when they mobilized against a push by President George W. Bush to privatize Social Security.

"You can't call yourself a Democrat and support Social Security benefit cuts," said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, in a statement that was among many fired off by liberal groups Friday. "The president is proposing to steal thousands of dollars from grandparents and veterans by cutting cost of living adjustments, and any congressional Democrat who votes for such a plan should be ready for a primary challenge."

The cut would work by switching from the current standard for measuring inflation to one that grows more slowly, called chained CPI, or as the White House recently renamed it, "superlative CPI." It works by assuming that if a product becomes too expensive -- say, beef -- a consumer would switch to something cheaper, such as chicken, in order to maintain the cost of living. Under a chained consumer price index, the government would not count the inflated price of beef but would instead count the price of chicken.

"The president has no mandate to cut these benefits, and progressives will do everything possible to stop him," Taylor said.

Many other left-leaning groups from MoveOn to Democracy For America echoed her sentiments.

"Any Democrat that votes to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits is risking a primary challenge," said Neil Sroka, a spokesman for DFA. "These are bedrock principles for millions of progressives who are the backbone of the Democratic Party. Siding with the president on this is tantamount to declaring war on the base of the Democratic Party. This is really serious."

"Our negotiator-in-chief is now serving up cuts to Social Security benefits in a mystifying attempt to appease Republican hostage-takers in Congress," said a statement from Becky Bond, political director for CREDO. "The American people are overwhelmingly opposed to cutting Social Security benefits, and if Democrats don't want to go down in history as the party that destroyed one of the greatest social programs of all time, they need to stand up and unambiguously reject the president's proposed cuts."

CREDO spokeswoman Sarah Lane noted that her group helped defeat a pair of Democrats in the recent Illinois special congressional election who were backed by the NRA.

"President Obama's plan to cut Social Security would harm seniors who worked hard all their lives. Under this plan, a typical 80-year-old woman would lose the equivalent of three months' worth of food every year. That's unconscionable," said MoveOn.org's Ana Galland in another statement. "It's even more outrageous, given that Republicans in Congress aren't even asking for this Social Security cut. This time, the drive to cut Social Security is being led by President Obama and Democrats.

"Millions of MoveOn members did not work night and day to put President Obama into office so that he could propose policies that would hurt some of our most vulnerable people," Galland added. "Just as we fought and defeated President Bush's plan to privatize Social Security, we will mobilize and stop this attempt to diminish the vital guarantee of Social Security. MoveOn's 8 million members will not stand by and watch a Democratic president chip away at one of the most successful government programs of all time. Every member of Congress -- Democrat or Republican -- who votes for this proposal should expect to be held accountable."

To be sure, Obama can expect resistance from many members of his party in Congress, more than 100 of whom signed on to a Congressional Progressive Caucus letter opposing cuts to the key safety net programs.

And Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was quick to tweet out a link to a video of Obama opposing such cuts in the past, and fire off a statement hammering the idea, calling it a "bitter disappointment."

“What the president is proposing is going to hurt a lot of people,” Sanders said.

He also issued a preemptive statement Thursday calling on the president to shy away from cuts to Social Security.

But many Democratic leaders -- including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi -- have been signaling greater willingness recently to go along with cuts and at least to consider chained CPI.

The White House repeated Friday that its proposal was a compromise, and that it would only embrace the cuts if Republicans embrace the more modest tax hikes.

This story was updated to add Sanders' criticism of chained CPI.

Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article understated the amount of revenue that would be generated by Obama's proposal as "$600 million."

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