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Saturday, July 9, 2011

Political theater hard to distinguish from political realities

Whitehouse opposes benefits cuts

WASHINGTON — As the Obama administration and congressional leaders began weekend talks on a grand bargain to reduce the federal deficit, liberal senators stepped up their effort to thwart any deal based on reduced entitlement spending.
“We thought that Social Security was actually off the table” in the deficit-cutting negotiations, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse said, expressing frustration with the administration in a conference call organized by a group that opposes changes in the federal benefits program for retirees.
The Rhode Island Democrat joined Sen. Bernard Sanders — a Vermont independent and organizer of a Senate caucus opposed to cuts in the program — and several other advocates on the call with reporters. The senators warned the Obama administration that opposition to Social Security cuts enjoys high levels of support in public opinion polls.
The sharp liberal reaction to the possibility of substantial cuts in entitlement spending was mirrored by conservative dismay over another building block reportedly under consideration in the debt-reduction talks: substantial hikes in tax revenues.
The statements of Whitehouse and others thus underscored the difficulties that Mr. Obama faces in striking a compromise that raises the federal debt limit and at the same time curbs deficit spending in a big way. The White House and the Congress face an early-August deadline for extending the nation’s expiring legal authority to borrow money.
Reports on the potential deal say it would hinge on painful concessions from both ends of the political spectrum: on the left, structural changes that reap major savings from Medicare and Social Security; on the right, a tax overhaul that would raise a lot of new revenue.
Whitehouse said the administration is mistaken if it believes that Democratic support for such a package can be taken for granted. He expressed concern that the negotiation “opens the door to whatever the Republicans want to push.” For Social Security, he asserted, “the Republican desire” is “to hand it over to Wall Street.” That was a reference to GOP proposals over the years to turn some portion of Social Security into direct payments that individual recipients would invest on their own.

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