Obama Hears a Big “No” on Cutting Entitlements
Policy + Politics

Obama Hears a Big “No” on Cutting Entitlements

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Well, so much for the era of good feeling.

President Obama traveled to Capitol Hill on Tuesday  afternoon  for the first of four meetings he has planned  this week  to reach out to Senate and House Democrats and Republicans in search of political consensus.

While, not surprisingly, his first session with Senate Democrats went relatively smoothly, he encountered some pushback from a liberal Democrat over Social Security reform. And he was greeted with the unhappy news that a Republican senator, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, had placed a hold on a must-pass continuing resolution to keep the government operating through the rest of the fiscal year.

“This is supposed to be a new era of let’s get along,” a dour Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters after emerging from the lengthy meeting with the president in an ornate conference room just steps away from the Senate chamber. “But I just learned while I was meeting with the President that --  who  else but Sen. Coburn --  is holding up the bill.”

The dustup over the continuing resolution, which must be enacted before March 27 to avoid a government shutdown, may have reminded the president why he has generally stayed away from the Capitol until now.
Coburn told the Washington Post today that the Oklahoma senator merely wants time to read the bill before he votes on it. “To not allow us the time … to be able to read and study the bill is really going against the best traditions of Senate but also it goes against common sense,” Coburn said. “How do we know whether we want to offer amendments to the bill if we haven’t read the bill?”

But Reid voiced exasperation with Coburn, a deficit hawk who has frequently clashed with the speaker on the Senate floor. “It’s a 587-page bill. It has been available to the public, because the vast majority of this bill is” the same as the House-passed  version, Reid said. ”I’m trying to be not too sensitive, but the senator from Oklahoma seems to have a problem.”

According to a handful of Democrats who sat in on the meeting with the president, it was a highly productive gathering that covered everything from  immigration and gun control to  spending and taxes to the president’s renewed hopes to negotiate a comprehensive plan with the Republicans for reforming entitlements and the tax code and bringing down the deficit.

Obama’s visit to the Capitol coincided with the release of Republican House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s fiscal 2014 budget, which was designed to wipe out the deficit in ten years through nearly $5 trillion in spending cuts,  an overhaul of Medicare and Medicaid and the dismantling of Obamacare.  Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray is scheduled to release the Democrats’ version of the budget  on Wednesday. Her plan  contains a combination of tax increases and spending cuts, but doesn’t  eliminate the deficit for the foreseeable future.

Both sides have indicated a willingness to use the upcoming debate this spring over the budget to seek an alternative to the$85 billion of across the board spending cuts that began to kick in this month. 

“Obviously, what the president has said and what we all want is to be able to substitute for sequestration,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland. “And I think the way that it’s being laid out now, our best chance is to reconcile the two budgets that are moving forward to give us a framework to move forward – which would include some form of a Grand Bargain.”

 But when  Obama told the gathering  that he had hopes for negotiating a Grand Bargain with the GOP,  liberal Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa  chimed in: “Yes, but what will be in that Grand Bargain? We don’t want to whack Social Security and Medicare.”

 Liberal Democrats, seniors and veterans groups fear that Obama might go too far in agreeing to changes to Social Security and other entitlements in pursuit of a bipartisan deficit reduction package. Harkin said he made it clear that he and other liberals would not support some of the ideas being floated by Obama, including altering the cost of living adjustment formula to gradually cut Social Security benefits.

Sen. Joseph Manchin III of West Virginia, a moderate to  conservative Democrat, said, “I think the President has taken a very pragmatic approach, looking at everything and what we can get done, and keeping core values. We’re not going to be, as Democrats, changing . . . the core values of Medicare or Social Security. That’s not going to happen. With that [he will be looking at] running things more efficiently and looking at things to do that make sense.”

“We went through the budget, we went through it all,” Manchin said. “I mean, basically everything he’s worked on, what he’s talking about. Things we’ve got to do. Immigration is a big thing, gun control. We’re all concerned about all of these. These are big issues.”