A group of House liberals is pressing President Obama to take all cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security off the table as the White House grapples with Republicans for a debt-limit deal.
Obama is reportedly eying significant entitlement reforms as a deficit-reduction strategy – an effort to entice Republicans to accept new revenue raisers as part of a package to hike the nation's $14.3 trillion debt ceiling.
But in a letter sent to Obama Thursday, the leaders of the House Progressive Caucus warned that cutting the big three entitlements not only threatens the vulnerable folks who depend on those programs, but also ignores equally effective deficit-reduction strategies – like the elimination of tax cuts to the wealthy.
With unemployment still above 9 percent, the liberals are trying to shift the debate in Washington from deficit reduction back to job creation.
"We feel that the discussions have been skewed up to this point," Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a co-chairman of the Progressive Caucus, told reporters in the Capitol Thursday.
The letter the group sent to Obama leaves little to the imagination.
"First," the lawmakers wrote, "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."
As a second condition, the lawmakers added, "revenue increases must be a meaningful part of any agreement."
"Tax breaks benefiting the very richest Americans should be eliminated as part of this deal," the lawmakers wrote. "The middle class has experienced enough pain during the last three years, Republicans are willing to inflict even more. We will not join them."
Grijalva said there's room for "restructuring" in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. But if the final debt-ceiling package cuts benefits under those programs, he warned, "then I couldn't support it."
AARP delivered a similar message on Thursday, issuing a statement warning that the powerful lobbying group "will not accept any cuts to Social Security as part of a deal to pay the nation’s bills."
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), another member of the Progressive Caucus, slammed Republicans for their focus on cutting entitlements while protecting tax breaks for even the most profitable corporations. She noted that presidents from both parties have a long history of raising the debt limit, and she warned GOP leaders that a package containing entitlement cuts would lose the Democratic support it will likely need to pass the House.
"The first insult is to suggest that President Barack Obama cannot, in the ordinary course of business, have the debt ceiling raised simply to pay America's bills," Lee said. "Now we're hearing that the most vulnerable will have to [bear] the brunt, potentially, of a deal.
"If the Republican leadership can find votes in their own caucus to pass such a deal, let them do it," she said.
With a number of conservative Republicans opposed to any debt-ceiling increase, GOP leaders are expected to need dozens of Democratic votes to pass the legislation. Those strange dynamics haven't been lost on liberal Democrats, who feel they're in a good position to influence the final package.
"We do have more leverage than people anticipate," Grijalva said. "Without overwhelming support from our caucus I think it's going to be a hard deal to pass."