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For Senate Dems, Entitlements Cloud Fiscal Talks

For Senate Dems, Entitlements Cloud Fiscal Talks

By Erin McPike - November 28, 2012

As President Obama and leading House Republicans make their cases to the American public about what should be part of fiscal cliff negotiations, there is a growing clash in the Senate over the inclusion of entitlement programs in any “grand bargain.”

In order to avoid crushing tax hikes and deep spending cuts set to hit at the beginning of next year, the White House and congressional leaders are busy trying to hammer out some kind of “balanced” approach that would lead to deficit reduction without harming the economy’s slow recovery. At this early stage of the negotiations, high-profile Republicans have indicated a willingness to accept higher taxation of some Americans to raise revenue, but Democrats have not shown the same readiness to compromise on issues similarly important to their base.

At issue are expensive entitlement programs, such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Republicans working on the deal say they are willing to stand down on certain revenue increases -- like the elimination of loopholes and deductions that benefit wealthier Americans -- so long as Democrats agree to move forward on reforms to those sacred entitlement programs.

One by one, however, Democratic senators have taken to the cable airwaves this week to say they are not willing to touch Social Security.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid echoed that sentiment: “President Obama said that Social Security is not part of what . . . we're going to do in this. And I agree with him.”

He continued, “I personally believe there are things that we can do with entitlements that don't hurt beneficiaries. But I'm not going to negotiate this with you simply other than to say that we hope that they can agree to the tax revenue that we're talking about, and that is rate increases. And then as the president has said on a number of occasions, we'll be happy to deal with entitlements.”

In prepared remarks earlier Tuesday, the second-ranking Senate Democrat, Dick Durbin, went further: He said all entitlement programs -- including Medicare and Medicaid -- should be dealt with, but not in any fiscal cliff negotiations.

Reid’s statement, along with comments from Republican leader Mitch McConnell, make clear that Social Security probably won’t make it into a final deal. Medicare has potential but is touchy.

“We know that the only way we can solve our long-term debt and deficit problems is to fix the unsustainable growth rates of our very popular entitlement programs,” McConnell stressed in subsequent remarks to reporters. “The president has from time to time indicated an openness to that. Now's the time to actually do it.”

Pressed about general Democratic opposition, and particularly to Social Security’s inclusion, he said: “I think all of the entitlements need to be discussed, because they all, to one degree or another, are on an unsustainable path. Obviously, Medicare is in more immediate danger. We want to save these programs, and I understand the dilemma the president and the majority leader have. Their hard left doesn't want to change anything, ever.

“They think any dollar spent, or any commitment made by the federal government on any program, at any time, ought to be there in perpetuity. Well, times change. And until we make sure these popular entitlement programs fit the demographics of a changing America, we can't save them. We all know that. It's simple math. What we have lacked so far is the political courage to do what needs to be done.”

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Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at emcpike@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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