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Senate Democrats divided over cuts to benefit programs

By Stephen Olemacher

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 10:52 a.m. HST, Nov 28, 2012

WASHINGTON » Deep divisions among Senate Democrats over whether cuts to popular benefit programs like Medicare and Medicaid should be part of a plan to slow the government's mushrooming debt pose a big obstacle to a deal for avoiding a potentially economy-crushing "fiscal cliff," even if Republicans agree to raise taxes.

Much of the focus during negotiations seeking an alternative to $671 billion in automatic tax increases and spending cuts beginning in January has centered on whether Republicans would agree to raising taxes on the wealthy. President Barack Obama has insisted repeatedly that tax increases on the wealthy must be part of any deal, even as White House officials concede that government benefit programs will have to be in the package too.

"It is the president's position that when we're talking about a broad, balanced approach to dealing with our fiscal challenges, that that includes dealing with entitlements," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday, referring to the mammoth benefit programs.

But even if GOP lawmakers agree to raise taxes, there is no guarantee Democrats can come up with enough votes in the Senate to cut benefit programs — as Republicans are demanding.

"I hope not if it means Social Security or Medicare benefit cuts," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.

There's a growing consensus among Senate Democrats and the White House that Social Security should be exempt from any deficit-reduction package. But some centrist Democrats in the Senate argue that fellow Democrats must be willing to consider cuts to Medicare and Medicaid in order to get concessions from Republicans on taxes.

"It has to be both — a significant revenue increase as well as spending cuts," said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who is retiring as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said rising health care costs in Medicare and Medicaid are helping to drive future spending, making them an essential part of a long-term deficit-reduction package.

"I've been part of every bipartisan group here. We've always put everything on the table," Conrad said. "If you're going to solve this problem, you're going to have to deal with where the spending is and the revenue can be raised."

But senators like Baucus and Conrad increasingly are being drowned out by other Democrats emboldened by the recent election results to fight against benefit cuts.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said he is willing to find savings in Medicare and Medicaid by making them more efficient. But, he said, he won't support benefit cuts.

"I think the election spoke very strongly about the fact that the vast majority of American people don't want to cut these programs," Harkin said.

Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate leadership ranks, said he doesn't think there should be a rush to overhaul entitlement programs in connection with the move to avert the fiscal cliff in the remaining weeks of the current session.

The Illinois Democrat said in a CNN interview today that "what we need to put on the table short-term is mandatory deficit reduction." Durbin said entitlement reforms to programs like Medicare and Medicaid should be "part of the long-term strategy" of reining in federal deficits.

Durbin repeated his position that Social Security should not be a part of the discussions. And he said that "we want to make sure that Medicare at the end of the day is a program that is solvent and we can count on it for years to come."

Congress and the White House are devoting the next three weeks to finding at least a bridge over the fiscal cliff by reducing the sudden jolt of higher taxes and spending cuts in January while laying a framework for addressing the nation's long-term financial problems next year.

Obama wants to let tax rates rise for wealthy families while sparing middle- and low-income taxpayers. Some Republican leaders, including House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, have said they were willing to consider making the wealthy pay more by reducing their tax breaks. But most Republicans in Congress adamantly oppose raising anyone's tax rates.

Negotiations are going slowly as each side waits for the other to make concessions.

Democrats already have tried to take Social Security off the table. Carney, the White House spokesman, said Monday that changes to the massive retirement and disability program should be done separately from any plan to reduce the deficit. That's the same position taken by 28 Democratic senators and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in a letter to fellow senators in September.

"We will oppose including Social Security cuts for future or current beneficiaries in any deficit-reduction package," said the letter, which was signed by many top Democrats, including Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. In the House, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has taken the same position, not only on Social Security, but also on Medicare and Medicaid.

"There hasn't been the slightest suggestion about what they're going to do about the real problems, and that's entitlements," said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee. "There's a certain cockiness that I've seen that is really astounding to me since we're basically in the same position we were before" the election.

Durbin has tried to find common ground, saying he would be willing to require wealthy seniors to pay more for Medicare benefits.

"If we simply stand by and say 'don't touch Medicare in any way, for any reason, ever' we are inviting a crisis that opponents can exploit to eviscerate Medicare or even to end it," Durbin said Tuesday. "Progressives should be willing to talk about ways to ensure the long-term viability of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, but those conversations should not be part of a plan to avert the fiscal cliff."

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serious wrote:
With the health industry allowing people to live longer, there has to be an adjustment to social security. Raise both the age to 67-68 and raise the limit on contributions to $200,000 or so salaries. Bring the federal legislators under the SS system and medical systems.
on November 28,2012 | 05:27AM
sailfish1 wrote:
Cut the military budget! Stop fighting wars and stop existing warfare. By spending so much on the military we are killing ourselves economically. The enemy wins.
on November 28,2012 | 05:28AM
Pacej001 wrote:
Cutting the defense budget, only 20% of current federal spending, by half wouldn't solve our debt/deficit/entitlement problem. Entitlements continue to grow until the debt they incur causes the economy to drop dead ("ceases to function' is actually the term the congressional budget office uses.)
on November 28,2012 | 07:37AM
autumnrose wrote:
Yes, CUT entitlements to farmers paid NOT to farm, cut entitlements to CORPORATIONS like GE who get more gov't subsidies than they pay in taxes... and CUT MEDICARE FRAUD !
on November 28,2012 | 07:46AM
aomohoa wrote:
I agree completely autumnrose!
on November 28,2012 | 08:39AM
Pacej001 wrote:
Emoting does not equal thinking. Roll all the egregious outrages you mention above together and you'll come up with an amount so trivial that it would amount to rounding error compared to our debt and unfunded liabilities. You chose to vote for Obama and ignore simple math, but math, like gravity, will not be wished away.
on November 28,2012 | 09:22AM
Ripoff wrote:
on November 28,2012 | 12:40PM
sumoroach wrote:
Advertiser is a SOCIALIST paper. Far Left Leaning Paper. A good example is yesterday article about the president going on a to philly to announce his plans. A lot of negitive comments with facts were may about the presidents policy and the article quickly disappeared off the web page. But beauty queens, two and half men, etc still running.
on November 28,2012 | 05:30AM
autumnrose wrote:
Very funny... I suppose sumoroach thinks he is in the center of the universe. Far left...? of Fox News pundits?
on November 28,2012 | 07:48AM
hawaiikone wrote:
The comment by sumoroach is true, your response makes little sense.
on November 28,2012 | 11:02AM
false wrote:
This comment has been deleted.
on November 28,2012 | 07:01AM
aomohoa wrote:
Like this is a big surprise. Politics always get in the way of the success of our country..
on November 28,2012 | 08:41AM
CriticalReader wrote:
Boehner is going to put the nail in the GOP's coffin. They need to take away his Speaker position.
on November 28,2012 | 07:16PM
HD36 wrote:
Don't cut anything we've had our money taken out of our whole life. The Post Office is bankrupt. The reason is that 80% of its costs is for labor. They need to either cut government jobs or pay or both. Government will always have waste, fraud and abuse.
on November 28,2012 | 07:14AM
Pacej001 wrote:
Get a freaking calculator and read something (google "CBO alternate scenario"). We have over $60 trillion in unfunded liabilities (debt entitlements), more if you include unfunded federal liabilities like government retirement and healthcare). This stupendious amount will result in debt that will crush our economy. Don't believe it can happen here? Google Greece/Argentina/national default and see what you get. And don't come back with the brainless Obama bumper sticker thinking about taxing the rich because revenue from income taxes would need to go up between 50 and 80% to pay for our unsupportable welfare state. And don't come back with tax the corporations more while other countries are in the process of lowering corporate tax rates to generate economic growth because, after all growth is what drives job creation and growth is what creates tax revenue. Kill it and, guess what, both decline.
on November 28,2012 | 07:46AM
honopic wrote:
Social Security and Medicare are NOT entitlements! Older Americans who depend on them for their economic survival paid into the programs for decades, and many are still paying taxes on part of their Social Security income. In effect, they are paying taxes on taxes they already paid! Most cannot go back to work, even if someone were to hire them, and an additional $2K per year in tax increases would put them in the poorhouse. Bankruptcy and home foreclosures will be the reward for all those years of hard work and paying into the system. Meanwhile, the military spends more in a day than most of these seniors earned in their entire lifetime. And for what? To see their grandchildren wounded or killed while the Halliburtons and other fat cats get richer?
on November 28,2012 | 08:09AM
Denominator wrote:
How about cutting out all unemployment insurnace payments? No employees pay anything for that.
on November 28,2012 | 08:33AM
aomohoa wrote:
I agree! Let's cut fraudulent welfare recipients. Generation after generation taking and not contributing! There is serious abuse of SS disability also. They can go to the beach but not to work! I deserve SS and Medicare too. I paid into it for 40 years!
on November 28,2012 | 08:44AM
Pacej001 wrote:
Problem is, sadly, our politicians have convinsced us that we've paid enough to fund these programs. This is a flat out distortion of the truth. First, the money you paid into SS is gone, spent by the Federal government. In its place, our government overlords put bond-like instruments in a file cabinet at Dept of Treasury and called it a trust fund. These are really IOU's based on the full faith and credit of the US government. Guess what, with $60 trillion (more really) in unfunded Federal liabilities, the "full faith and credit" isn't looking so good. In fact, it's worse. SS is drawing on the SS "trust fund" right now. Meaning that current and future SS benefits will be paid out of tax revenue and, since we're running an annual deficit, from money borrowed from China and others. -----------Medicare is in even worse shape with around a decade of insolvency left because it cost much, much more than our contributions will fund. That isn't because of military spending or anything else. It's because Medicare is simply unaffordable. If we cut the defense budget by 50%, it and our other entitlements STILL wouldn't be affordable.----------------- The talk about "rich fat cats" is just economically ignorant.
on November 28,2012 | 09:07AM
serious wrote:
Pace--correct. Remember when Clinton "balanced the budget"---it was with an IOU to the SS system.
on November 28,2012 | 12:39PM
aomohoa wrote:
Make our representatives pay into Social Security. Why don't they have too. I did all my working life.That would fix one problem.
on November 28,2012 | 08:39AM
Pacej001 wrote:
From the Social Security web site: "All members of Congress, the President and Vice President, Federal judges, and most political appointees, were covered under the Social Security program starting in January 1984. They pay into the system just like everyone else. " Easy to have an opinion without really knowing anything, but, with the web, there's no excuse for not having the facts.
on November 28,2012 | 09:12AM
aomohoa wrote:
Pacej001 I apologize for my comment. I was misinformed.
on November 28,2012 | 11:06AM
Pacej001 wrote:
No apology due. It's just frustrating seeing my brothers and sisters hold opinions, and vote based on them, when they don't have the facts, especially when the facts are instantly available on the web. Makes me wonder if we deserve the rights and privileges we have.
on November 28,2012 | 11:26AM
serious wrote:
Pace, they pay into the SS system but as I blogged earlier they are not into that retirement system, just like health care--it's good for us middle class but not good enough for THEM. Look at the Congresswoman who was shot in Arizona--she go the best of the best. If she were an ordinary citizen she would probably still be in a nursing home in Tuscon---our system is broken. Look at the "insider trading rules" not applicable to THEM--when caught they didn't put themselves into the rules for THE MIDDLE CLASS they made their own rules. And HE is for the middle class--BS!!
on November 28,2012 | 12:46PM
hawaiikone wrote:
No. Eliminate congress's generous retirement and medical benefits and return them to the same system available to their constituents. As many of them are already wealthy, that may not have the affect we need, but it's an appropriate start.
on November 28,2012 | 11:09AM
willman wrote:
Cut foreign aid especially to countries that want to do the United States harm. I don't think that the United States really cares about these countries. We give them billions of dollars to buy their friendship. We bribe them to do our bidding. This has never worked and never will. Iraq and Afganistan continue to be havens for terrorists even though we have spent billions of dollars trying to force democracy on them. It would be interesting to find out how many countries that we give money to and how much.
on November 28,2012 | 03:15PM
CriticalReader wrote:
Democrats and Obama in particular have the upper hand. Obama's got a four year ride. Obama's plan is the mandate because he won. Any given House GOP member has only two years of job security. Any GOPers perceived as pushing the US over the cliff, willing to bluff pushing the US over the cliff, or or even being stupid and impeding immediate progress toward an eventual soilution, are gone except for those in major tea party type districts/asylums. The Dems have a built in campaign approach to those arch conservatives two years down the road: "Look at the GOP candidate. That's the person who was willing to ruin your Country to make Rush Limbaugh happy."
on November 28,2012 | 07:14PM
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