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Senate Democrats Split on Cutting Benefit Programs for Fiscal Cliff Deal

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. (Getty Images)By STEPHEN OHLEMACHER

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 Wednesday 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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I hope we go over the cliff. Then we get up the next morning and get on with our lives.

December 02 2012 at 11:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Dem against Dem. Wow, it's almost like they don't need a voice of reason Republican.

November 30 2012 at 12:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Harry Piels

Get Bernanke to pay back money you (congress) stole from the program over the years BEFORE you make cuts to the program.

November 30 2012 at 1:00 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

We as a country cannot keep spending more than we take in. We cannot tax job providers until they leave the US more more favorable countries if we expect jobs to be created. Our world line of credit funded by the sale of treasury instruments will ultimately cost more in interest repayments than we can borrrow for repayment. If the US was a company, no bank would lend it money based on its negative cash flow and debt/worth ratio. As a result, all programs, even defense, medicare, medicaid, and social security have to be reviewed for cost savings. If not, no programs will survive due to lack of funding.

November 29 2012 at 4:30 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to cdsj's comment

Obama and his looney lib friends think we can.

November 29 2012 at 8:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I see that Fox Noise has done a wonderful job in brainwashing you. By the way, did we not have great economy under Reagan and Clinton, even though their tax rates were much higher than those under Obama? Did the job creators leave then because tax rates were too high??

November 30 2012 at 3:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to chris1011's comment

Obamaniacs are the brain washed ones.............and the ones obsessed with FOX news.

November 30 2012 at 4:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down
Craig Law

I have paid into social security, medicade and medicare all my life and have not collected a dime. The goverment benifits and Entitlement programs is why we can not balance the budget. Just think of all the goverment officals and employees who retired with full benifit and full pensions and did not pay a dime for this benifit. Congressman, Senitors, and President we pay for their full pensions and benifits their cost 0. Do the math. They want to cut benifit to people who paid their dues. Vote for a better goverment and lets regulate the Goverment.

November 29 2012 at 11:16 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

How is it that you never see anything come from the GOP side that involves cutting some of this country's overblown and unnecessary defense spending? All you hear from them is that so-called "entitlements" like social security and medicare need to be adjusted, tampered with or "cut" while the sacred cow of military expenditures is hardly mentioned (if at all)? Next to big social programs, the defense budget is the biggest part of the taxpayers' pie. Having worked for DoD, I'm KNOW that there are plenty of useless programs and pork built into some of these military programs and research projects with our big military contractors. If all things are going to be up for negotiation you can't leave out "smart" cuts to the defense budget. For one thing we should not be nation building, fighting wars of occupation and trying to bring Western styled democracy to a bunch of knuckle dragging Middle Eastern troglodytes that take our money and still hate our guts and think of us as the Great Satan. Also, why are we still sending aid (which we do not have or can not really afford) to our enemies like Egypt (now taken over by the anti-West Muslim Brotherhood) or to Pakistan (Osama bin Laden's protectors).There are plenty of "common sense" places to look for budget cuts...just very little, if any COMMON SENSE.

November 29 2012 at 10:03 AM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Artie's comment

Common sense was replaced by politically correct, to avoid hurting the feelings of the Troglodytes.

November 29 2012 at 10:06 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

On medicade and medicare. 1.Generic drugs ONLY, when available, 2. Put all drug purchases out for bid world wide and have medicade/medicare directly dispense them. 3. Have government owned and operated birthing clinics for medicade. 4. Have government run end of life hospitals for medicade and medicare. 5. Any hospital that wishes to accept medicade and medicare must write off the charges for the cost of the last 30 days of life.

November 28 2012 at 10:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to cabo79's comment

All govt employees (WH, Senate, House, etc) must be on citizens health care plan and SS program. NO SPECIAL PROGRAMS FOR THE ELECTED.

November 29 2012 at 7:46 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

If the Dem's dont want to help .. lets go over the cliff. Maybe if the non tax payers start paying something .. and have a little skin in the game .... spending will change. Based on what I hear on TV.. Demo leader thnks he is King and since he doesnt have to run for reelection again ... can just stand there and smile. Repub's have Congress, Repubs have Governors .... who really won? Make him insignificant for the next 4 years

November 28 2012 at 5:13 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Why do they keep calling them entitlements they belong to the people who payed all there working lives ,If the dam politicions had kep there hands out of them there would not be any problems let them fix them , If we have to give them up Isay just let us go over the cliff , OBANA HOLD YOUR GROUND

November 28 2012 at 5:08 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to rdd2897's comment

he's not that strong of a negotiator .... plus his focus is 250K taxpayers .. and the impact for their new contribution will be insignificant.... but he will smile and call it a victory. He has never been able to see the big picture .... America's biiggest mistake wasn not taking Hillary ....

November 29 2012 at 9:10 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

FDR claimed SS would be fine
To fund retirement, your's and mine.
Pay or not, it's your call.
We'll take 1% and that is all.
Dem cried, "That just won't do!
We'll get much more before we're through".
LBJ moved it to the General Fund SO -
Dems could spend it, as you know.
With Democrats, we've never won
And they blame it on Republicans.

November 28 2012 at 5:03 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply