The Progressive Caucus, in a letter being sent to President Obama today, says any budget deal he agrees to that contains cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid won't get their votes. Given that any deal that President Obama agrees to is unlikely to win over enough Republicans to pass the House of Representatives unless it represents absolute capitulation to the most radical of Republican demands, push-back on Obama's left side from the Progressive Caucus at this stage of the game could prove significant.
Outrage from the left could already be making a difference in the tone of statements coming out of the White House. After The Washington Post reported that Obama was considering cuts to Social Security and Medicare in exchange for Republican agreement on revenue increases, a senior administration official e-mailed The Huffington Post to say that the report "overshoots the runway." The aide cited previous administration statements in opposition to benefit cuts but support for other actions that would "strengthen" the program.
At a news conference today, Progressive Caucus leaders Reps. Raul Grijalva and Sheila Jackson Lee indicated they were willing within limits to give the administration wiggle room on what's being called measures to "strengthen" Social Security as well as Medicare and Medicaid. Still, the language in their letter is firm:
"First, any cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid should be taken off the table. The individuals depending on these three programs deserve well-conceived improvements, not deep, ideologically driven cuts with harmful consequences.... Second, revenue increases must be a meaningful part of any agreement. ... Republican insistence on protecting these tax breaks [for the very richest Americans] will force middle-class families to shoulder the burden of even deeper budget cuts, and this is unacceptable."
Lee said that conservatives should "stop scaring the American people, stop using tactics of intimidation" and stop comparing the United States' fiscal situation to that of Greece or Portugal. "America is not broke," she said.
She added that the message her progressive colleagues would be taking to the White House would be that there has to be an end to the Bush tax cuts and the tax loopholes, a rejection of budget cuts that would cause a loss of jobs, and a refusal to touch Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security benefits.
The Progressive Caucus "is not trying to be the skunk at the party," Grijalva said (he could have added that Republicans are doing quite a good job by themselves of stinking up the joint), but someone has to represent what the American Majority wants to see out of the deficit talks—an agreement that puts the top priority on putting people back to work and lowers the deficit by rebuilding the middle class. One of the more recent examples of American Majority thinking is reflected in a late June New York Times/CBS News poll, in which 53 percent said the economy and jobs were their top concern, with just 7 percent identifying the federal deficit as their top concern. That same poll found 45 percent of respondents concluding the federal government was paying either no or little attention to the economy.
Just as Republican leaders are claiming that the "Tea Party" absolutists won't let them cut a deal that raises taxes or cuts of tax expenditures on millionaires and billionaires, President Obama should take advantage of the fact that progressive House Democrats and a majority of the American public won't support him cutting a deal that is not based on the principle of shared sacrifice and which puts the axe to Social Security and to health care for seniors and the economically struggling.
Maryam al-Zoubi contributed to this post.