WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama assured House Democrats Thursday he won't slash Social Security and Medicare, moments after he reaffirmed his commitment to entitlement reform in a meeting with Senate Republicans.
Obama sat down with Democrats in late afternoon, just after he emerged from a 90-minute face-to-face with Republicans in the upper chamber, where his willingness to cut entitlement spending dominated the conversation. House Democrats hadn't seen the reports of what Obama discussed with the Senate GOP -- they were reacting instead, they told reporters after the meeting, to reports about the president restating his support for a grand bargain with Republicans that includes so-called chained CPI and other cuts to Medicare.
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Mich.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, was first to ask Obama about chained CPI, a way of calculating the consumer price index that would decrease monthly payments to Social Security recipients. Ellison, one of the strongest opponents of the Social Security benefit cut, was soon joined by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who also expressed concerns to the president.
Obama quickly pushed back, insisting that he would only move on entitlements if Republicans did the same on new tax revenues.
"I’m not Charlie Brown with a football," Obama told Ellison, according to Politico. "I haven’t heard anything from Republicans on revenue, so Keith, you can relax."
Other Democrats in the room later told reporters that the president pledged not to chase a bad deal, while acknowledging the need to address the long-term solvency of entitlement programs. Many Democrats said they felt reassured, mostly because a grand bargain consisting of unpopular entitlement reforms was unlikely due to Republicans' refusal to budge on taxes.
"This was not a meeting for the president to reveal his confidential discussions with Republicans, but I think we got the sense from the president that since they're not being very forthcoming on the revenue side, concerns about chained CPI may be a little premature," Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) told reporters. "Members that are concerned with chained CPI, myself included, I think could at least take some reassurance that the negotiations with Republicans don't appear on a path that would lead to that kind of a deal right now," Huffman added.
"The president continues to put stuff on the table, and some of us think that perhaps we've given enough, put enough on the table for Republicans," said Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) But "he said he's not going to do anything that he thought was bad for the people."
Some Democrats suggested the president wasn't necessarily proposing entitlement reform, but measures that would ensure programs like Social Security and Medicare don't cease to exist.
"Some might call it that, but I think we're talking about financial security for future generations," Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) said. "He's just saying for the future, we have to give confidence that our entitlement programs are sound, and that social insurance is sound for generations to come."
"We as Democrats have to think about all parts of the budget being on the table," Kaptur added.
The White House has repeatedly pointed to one such offer on the table, last made to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) during fiscal cliff negotiations, that includes means testing of specific parts of Medicare and chained CPI.
And progressive House Democrats, like some of their colleagues in the Senate, vowed to fight any such package, regardless of what Republicans are willing to offer in return.
"I don't think there is any problem with Social Security," Nadler told reporters. "I said [to Obama] ... Social Security doesn't contribute a nickel to the deficit -- why is it even on the table? Why are we talking about it?" The New York congressman said he is counting on Obama to stick with his insistence that new revenues must be part of any agreement.
The president "said if the Republicans were adamant in their opposition to any tax revenues, it was a moot question," Nadler said. "Certainly we're not going to touch entitlements in any way without considerable revenues."