WASHINGTON — The latest round of fiscal talks was always unlikely to produce any kind of big bipartisan bargain, and liberals are just fine with that.
Liberals have always been nervous about the prospect of a grand fiscal deal, fearing congressional leaders and the White House would agree to proposals like raising the Medicare retirement age or change the way Social Security benefits are calculated in exchange for new revenue. That change to Social Security, known as chained CPI, is supported by Republicans and was also included in President Barack Obama's budget last year.
Each side has blamed the other for being inflexible — Republicans refuse to raise taxes, Democrats say; Republicans charge Democrats refuse to touch entitlement programs and mandatory spending. But now instead of just opposing cuts to Social Security, progressives want to be seen as the ones who refuse to compromise — and are hopeful that their hardline position will embolden Hill Democrats to do the same.
"I would be so happy if we were seen as inflexible on those issues. Eighty percent plus of Americans in poll after poll after poll don't want to cut social security benefits," said progressive strategist Mike Lux. "We have the high political ground and we are in a very good position on those issues so if we want to be seen as the folks that are fighting on those issues, we're happy to do it."
"We are certainly not interested in any grand bargain, or whatever you want to call it, grand swindle, that takes money out of the pockets of seniors," he added. "There's all kinds of government programs that we'd be happy to cut, there's lots of waste but not in those programs.
When the new budget conferees met last week, Budget Chairman Paul Ryan ruled out any new taxes, spawning headlines that he had "killed" the grand bargain. The response from progressives? We killed it first.
"Harry Reid already killed it by saying there will be no benefit cuts. Paul Ryan shot bullets into the corpse," said Adam Green, who heads up the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. "Unfortunately, this zombie has come back to life many times — and by making the case for why seniors need expanded Social Security benefits, a national coalition of groups will continue working to keep a Grand Bargain dead and off the table."
Jim Dean, the chairman of Democracy for America, said that targeting the benefit programs would be a losing issue for any politician — and Democrats would be wise to stay away from supporting changes like chained CPI.
"No elected official of any party would dare be able to go back to their district with something like a chained CPI, I don't care how conservative they are, or how liberal they are," he said. "I haven't quite figured out why it keeps floating around. I really don't … I'm hard pressed to figure out why any body, including any body at the White House, would push the proposal."
Liberal Democrats on the Hill have taken the hint: they are not only outright opposing any changes to Social Security, there's a small but growing group of Senators who are looking to expand the program. A bill introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin and backed by Sens. Sherrod Brown, Mark Begich, and Brian Schatz, would do just that.
"The only way that right-wing politicians win on this if cuts to Social Security are buried under the guise of restructuring and reforming entitlements in some other budget deal," said Brown on a conference call with PCCC supporters. "I cannot believe there will be a major budget deal presented on the floor of the senate that has cuts to Social Security."
"President Obama, as good a president as he's been, sometimes he doesn't want to move in a certain direction as much as we'd like him to, so it's up to us [to push him]," Brown added of the new push expand Social Security.
As unlikely as the proposal is to ever become law, Democrats involved in the budget conference say they won't budge on program cuts in this round of talks, even if it means nothing is agreed to.
"The issue is not a big deal or a little deal, the issue is what kind of deal makes sense to the American people," Vermont's Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has long argued for the expansion of entitlement programs. "If you have a deal that cuts Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid that is a very bad deal. "