WASHINGTON -- Two progressive organizations have found themselves in the unusual position of being on the opposite side of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. Over the course of the past two years, the former House Speaker has been the most significant obstacle to the ongoing effort to slash entitlements and cut social spending.
But a series of recent comments, and reports that Pelosi was willing to accept draconian cuts as part of a debt-ceiling deal, have liberals worried that their most powerful and passionate defender may be buckling on the issue.
During a recent press conference, and again during an interview with Charlie Rose, the California Congresswoman said that she would support what's known as the Simpson-Bowles plan, a budget proposal that was created by the co-chairs of a fiscal commission set up by President Obama (dubbed the "Catfood Commission" by progressives). The plan was rejected by members of the commission, failing to win the necessary votes to move to a vote in Congress. Yet the co-chairs -- former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming and Morgan Stanley director Erskin Bowles, a Democrat -- have worked recently to revive it, and the political class speaks of it as if it passed and is an official recommendation of the commission.
At the end of March, a version of the Simpson-Bowles plan was given a vote on the House floor. It was annihilated, 382-38, with Pelosi and most Democrats voting against it.
But Pelosi, the day after the vote, said that she could still support the plan if it stuck more closely to the original version put out by Simpson and Bowles. "I felt fully ready to vote for that myself, thought it was not even a controversial thing ... When we had our briefing with our caucus members, people felt pretty ready to vote for it. Until we saw it in print," she said. "It was more a caricature of Simpson Bowles, and that's why it didn't pass. If it were actually Simpson-Bowles, I would have voted for it."
Yet when the Simpson-Bowles plan had been originally unveiled, Pelosi called it "simply unacceptable."
In early April, Pelosi was asked about her initial opposition. "My problem with it was what it did as far as Social Security is concerned. Apart from that we said, there's a lot to work with," she told Charlie Rose. "It was a good framework in terms of revenue and in terms of cuts, in terms of defense spending and the rest. It was very bold."
The Simpson-Bowles plan is a mix of tax increases and spending cuts that trims four trillion dollars off the deficit in ten years. Its cuts to social spending and entitlement programs made it "simply unacceptable" to the Democrats' liberal base almost as soon as it was announced. Pelosi's rhetorical retreat from that hard-line position has progressives worried they'll have nobody left to defend the social safety net, even Medicare and Social Security.
They are also worried by the willingness Pelosi expressed during the manufactured debt-ceiling crisis to agree to cuts much greater than Simpson-Bowles was going for, as reported by the Washington Post.
[President Obama] warned Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that he might return to the position under discussion the previous Sunday -- that is, cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in exchange for just $800 billion in tax increases.
Would they support him?
The Democratic leaders "kind of gulped" when they heard the details, [White House chief of staff William] Daley recalled.
Reluctantly, Reid and Pelosi said they'd back the plan.
Fortunately for those who rely on the programs that would've been slashed, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) walked away from the deal, objecting to the accompanying tax increases. But during the lameduck session following the presidential election, the chopping block will likely once again be covered with the meat of the New Deal. The question liberals are wondering: Will Pelosi stand in the way or help swing the cleaver?
"Social Security is a bedrock promise to our seniors: Democrats have fought efforts to dismantle and privatize Social Security, and we will continue to do so. Leader Pelosi has been a leader in that fight. After a lifetime of work and contributions, Americans have a right to the economic security they were promised in retirement," Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said in a statement. "Leader Pelosi supports a balanced approach to reduce the deficit while growing the economy, but believes any plans regarding Social Security must extend its solvency, protect benefits, and be dealt with on a separate table so that any savings go into the Social Security Trust Fund. Leader Pelosi has consistently fought for maintaining our bedrock promise to seniors and will continue to do so."
In response to Pelosi's statement, CREDO, one of the organizations planning to speak out, told HuffPost:
CREDO has long supported Leader Nancy Pelosi's call for absolutely no cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security benefits. We applaud her strong stand in opposition to putting Social Security on the table in deficit reduction talks. However we are still deeply troubled to hear that she has not clarified her comments in support of dangerous cuts to Medicare and Medicaid benefits.
With President Obama and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer on the record in favor of benefit cuts, it's crucial that the most progressive member of the Democratic Leadership stand strong and draw a line in the sand not just for Social Security benefits but for Medicare and Medicaid benefits, too.
We've learned from past battles that preemptive caving by Democrats can lead to disastrous outcomes. We hope Leader Pelosi will stand strong in support of Medicare and Medicaid benefits -- as she has indicated she would stand strong in support of Social Security and the retirement age.
While it's impossible to know precisely what motivated Pelosi's public reversal, those familiar with her thinking see it more as a political move than a policy change. House Republicans have already rejected a plan that is even more draconian than Simpson-Bowles, so there is little chance that they will back the more generous version version any time soon. A Democrat can support Simpson-Bowles, then, with no immediate risk that the professed support will result in the plan becoming law. That would allow Democrats to appear "reasonable" and "serious," painting Tea Party opponents as irrational and stubborn ideologues unwilling even to consider compromise. And more specifically, Simpson-Bowles isn't actually a bill, but rather a hodgepodge of various options for cutting the deficit.
Eric Kingson, co-director of Social Security Works, which is also pressuring Pelosi to stay strong, is worried she might be making a dangerous political gamble.
"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," he told HuffPost. "If it is, it's a dangerous and disingenuous game, not worthy of the traditions of the political party that created and championed Social Security and Medicare."
Clarification: The headline has been clarified to reflect Pelosi's stated support for defending Social Security.