WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's call for Congress to slow the rise in Social Security benefits is causing consternation inside both political parties, an inauspicious start for a recommendation the White House says should foster a bipartisan deal to reduce deficits.
"I made a promise to the people of Rhode Island that I would always oppose cuts to Social Security, and I'm going to keep that promise," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat so politically secure that he won re-election last fall by a margin of nearly 2-1 over his rival. The proposal "is nothing more than a benefit cut disguised behind technical jargon," he added in a written statement that called the plan by its budget-geek name of "chained CPI.".
Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter, a 14th-term lawmaker from the Rochester, N.Y., region, went one step further. "I urge the president to remove chained CPI, along with the Medicare cuts, from his budget because these crucial benefits have no place as a bargaining chip in a deficit reduction deal," she said.
Republicans, too, have been conflicted, curiously enough, in a way that only adds to Obama's difficulties with his customary Democratic allies.
Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, in charge of the GOP campaign to keep control of the House in 2014, accused the president of "trying to balance this budget on the backs of seniors." The assessment was jarringly at odds with the desire of many Republicans to wring savings from government benefit programs, and their support for the sort of change Obama is now publicly backing.
In short order, House Speaker John Boehner made plain his disagreement with Walden, and sought to reframe the issue to make it sound like Obama was grudgingly moving toward Republicans on the issue. The president has recommended "modest reforms," he told reporters, adding they were "the least we must do to begin to solve the problems of Social Security."
Walden got a different sort of slap from the Club for Growth, which spent millions in 2012 trying to help conservatives win election to Congress. The group quickly labeled the Oregon lawmaker a RINO – Republican in name only – and added him to its list of GOP incumbents who deserve a primary challenge from the right in next year's elections.
Older Americans tend to vote in disproportionately large numbers in non-residential elections, and given Walden's position as head strategist for Republican candidates in 2014, Democrats quickly imagined he might seek to turn Obama's proposal against them in television ads and campaign mailings in 18 months' time.
The White House rebutted. "The inclusion of entitlement reform, specifically chained CPI ....comes at the specific behest and request of Republican leaders," White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Thursday. Without mentioning Walden by name, he referred to his comments as cynical and "flagrantly ridiculous."
Sharp rhetoric, for sure.
But unlikely to satisfy Democratic lawmakers being pressured by the White House to vote for a change that many are inclined to oppose in the first place, and Obama will need all the support he can get from his own party if he hopes for a deal.
That's because Republicans are less than eager to take the president's proposal on the terms he laid out on Wednesday. He called his own recommendation "less than optimal" and said he would insist that Republicans simultaneously agree to raise taxes on the wealthy and some businesses. "When it comes to deficit reduction, I've already met Republicans more than halfway," he added.
Republicans don't see it that way, particularly after they were maneuvered into raising taxes by $600 billion over the winter with little in the way of spending cuts in exchange.
Given the political calculations, the specifics of Obama's proposal seem beside the point in the early reaction. It is to alter the way the government calculates inflation, and as a result, slow the growth in annual benefit increases for Social Security, parts of Medicare, veterans' disability payments and other programs.
Simultaneously, the inflationary adjustments in income tax brackets would be affected, raising revenue for the government, but so far, that has drawn little notice.
The official explanation for the change in benefit calculations is almost plaintive.
"Most economists agree that the chained CPI provides a more accurate measure of the average change in the cost of living than the standard CPI," the White House argued in Obama's formal budget document, released at midweek.
Also, the president has taken steps "to protect the most vulnerable" beneficiaries in Social Security and other government benefit programs that would be affected. At the same time, it notes that switching the calculation for inflation "has been proposed in almost every major bipartisan deficit reduction plan put forward over the last several years," including the one produced by a presidential commission headed by Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson.
To be sure, a small number of Democrats praised Obama.
Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat whose name will be on the ballot this fall, issued a statement that said despite the criticism Obama was receiving, "I happen to believe the president is doing the right thing: he's putting everything on the table."
Welcome words at the White House, no doubt.
EDITOR'S NOTE – David Espo is chief congressional correspondent for The Associated Press.