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Red-State Democrats Buck Obama On Social Security Cuts

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Democratic Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska has promised two new bills aimed at protecting Social Security benefits. (Photo by Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Democratic Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska has promised two new bills aimed at protecting Social Security benefits. (Photo by Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

WASHINGTON -- The majority of Senate Democrats running for reelection in 2014, including three running in red states, have broken with President Barack Obama and are opposing his effort to cut Social Security benefits, imperiling the austerity project known as the "grand bargain."

In his most recent budget proposal, Obama included a measure to reduce the cost-of-living adjustment related to senior and veterans benefits as a compromise offer to Republicans. He had already put so-called chained CPI on the table during both debt ceiling and fiscal cliff negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), and defended his move this time by emphasizing it was a reform "championed by Republicans leaders in Congress" that would only be made in exchange for new tax revenues.

But Democrats have repeatedly relied on their defense of Medicare and Social Security during election years, and the 2014 crop of candidates are no different: Eight of the 14 Senate Democrats seeking reelection have come out against chained CPI.

Democratic Sens. Kay Hagan (N.C.), Mark Begich (Alaska) and Mark Pryor (Ark.), all running in states won by Republican Mitt Romney in 2012, have publicly opposed the president's effort, going so far as to co-sponsor a Senate resolution against chained CPI last week. Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), running in bluer states, also co-sponsored the resolution.

"Adequate annual Cost of Living Adjustments are critical for the millions of Americans who rely on these benefits to make ends meet," Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who introduced the resolution, said in a statement. "The truth is that the way we currently calculate COLAs is already inadequate to keep up with rising medical costs. The Chained CPI would take us even further in the wrong direction by directly cutting benefits for millions of Americans. This resolution expresses our steadfast opposition to doing so."

Other Senate Democrats up for reelection who didn't sign the resolution were still unfavorably disposed toward chained CPI. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) opposes the cost-of-living cut, her office confirmed to HuffPost, and has said Social Security should be off the table in debt talks.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) has been open to the chained CPI cut, but insisted a "circle of protection" must be established for the most vulnerable Americans.

Begich is taking the cause a step further, announcing two new bills last week aimed at protecting Social Security benefits. The first would eliminate the income cap for Social Security taxes. Currently, income above $113,700 is exempt from FICA taxes. Eliminating the cap would make the program solvent for the next 75 years with no additional reforms needed.

The second bill would push the cost-of-living argument in the opposite direction: Instead of reducing benefits for seniors, it would weight the inflation calculation to account for those products seniors buy disproportionately, such as health care.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) has not co-sponsored the resolution, and a spokesperson for Landrieu declined to elaborate. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) hasn't either. As a leading deficit hawk, Warner is a backer of the chained CPI proposal and faces little threat in his home state, where the former governor remains popular.

Opposition to chained CPI had typically been associated with progressive Democrats. That they are now being joined by conservative Democrats, who are thought to be more willing to find middle ground with Republicans on a budget deal, underscores how difficult it will be for Obama to cut Social Security.

"I think the Democratic opposition you have seen against CPI just says if Republicans want a grand deal and they want CPI, then they are going to have to produce votes," said a top Senate Democratic aide. "It isn't going to be 50 Dems and 10 Republicans, but rather something like 40-20 or 35-25."

Finding 20 or 25 Republicans who will support tax hikes is a tall order, however, especially without the buy-in of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Internal Democratic surveys have found that chained CPI is the least popular entitlement reform of those addressed, according to a Democratic official who has reviewed the polling. Voters said they would raise taxes, lift the retirement age or attempt any other reform that pollsters have presented, rather than reduce the cost-of-living adjustment.

When Obama included the proposal in his fiscal year 2014 budget, progressive critics warned that not only was it bad policy, but it was bad politics and would hurt Democratic candidates, who would be associated with cutting Social Security. Hence last week's Senate resolution.

"It's only an association with our candidates if they agree with it," Guy Cecil, the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told HuffPost. Washington "tend[s] to view races through the prism of what's happening at the White House, what's happening on the Senate floor and what the president is doing. Voters don't always process races that way, and that's why we try to draw these other contrasts out of the race in terms of their own personal history."

Cecil said that in general he advises Senate candidates not to blindly follow the president. "I think it's advantageous for us to run candidates that are true to what they believe and express that," he said. "The advice that we give to every single candidate is the same: When you agree with the president, you should say so; when you disagree with the president, you should say so; and you shouldn't be ham-handed about either one."

When the American people disagree with the president, it makes the decision easier. A HuffPost/YouGov poll conducted last December found that only 16 percent of Americans said the proposal to switch to chained CPI was a good idea, while 54 percent said it was a bad idea. The proposal was unpopular across the political spectrum, with 56 percent of Republicans, 67 percent of Democrats and 46 percent of independents saying they thought it was a bad idea.

Another December HuffPost/YouGov poll found that a 52 percent to 25 percent majority of Americans said proposals that would cut Social Security or Medicare benefits for future beneficiaries should not even be considered as part of a budget deal.

At the moment, Democratic operatives are counting on the improbability of Obama reaching a budget deal with Republicans. The two parties remain deeply divided on how to reduce the deficit, and there's every chance vulnerable Senate Democrats won't have to vote on a budget that includes chained CPI before the midterm election. And even if a deal were passed, operatives said they were confident Democrats wouldn't bear the brunt of public anger over entitlement cuts in 2014.

Obama has not given up hope of a deal. He followed up his recent high-profile dinner conversations with Senate Republicans by sending two of his senior aides to Capitol Hill to spell out in detail exactly what he was willing to offer to get a grand bargain -- one that would implement austerity by raising taxes and cutting spending.

The April 25 meeting involved roughly 20 Republican senators as well as White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and senior aide Rob Nabors, who is the White House's point man on congressional relations. Nabors and McDonough brought with them a PowerPoint presentation outlining what the president was willing to accept in a bipartisan deal.

"Basic message is, here is our plan. We put it on paper. Specifics. You don't like something or want to change something, then fine, but you have to come back to us with your specifics before we ask Senate Dems to sit down and engage," said a Democratic aide familiar with the briefing.

But much like their opponents, Republicans are also skeptical about the prospects of a deal. HuffPost asked Don Stewart, McConnell's spokesman, whether the briefing had led to anything productive. "Has the president dropped his demand for a massive tax hike?" Stewart responded.

Emily Swanson contributed reporting.

CORRECTION: This article has been edited to correct a quote from Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.). Coons said a "circle of protection" must be established for vulnerable Americans.

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