Dems Add Entitlement Reform To Packed Agenda Ahead of 2010 Elections

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Moderate and conservative Democrats want to empower an outside entitlement commission to reshape major domestic spending programs like Medicare and Social Security, and they’re threatening a truly nuclear option to get their way. If Congress does not create this commission, they say, they will vote against must-pass legislation to raise the nation’s debt ceiling, which would trigger a default, and, perhaps, economic calamity.

“I will not vote for raising the debt limit without a vehicle to handle this,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) told McClatchy. “This is our moment.”

On the one hand, the threat is so outlandish as to be self-defeating. Would Democrats really extract such a devastating toll, both on their own political fortunes, but also on the national and global economy, just to prove that they’re serious about entitlement reform?

But on the other hand, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid may not want to rock the boat too hard in the midst of a health care debate in which Democrats are hanging their political fortunes on many of the same centrist senators making the threat. And the Obama administration has been broadly supportive of the idea of reining in deficits and paying down the national debt for some time now.

So it seems fairly likely that, whether this commission passes in the form deficit hawks would like to see, debt reduction will be a key theme, both at the White House and on Capitol Hill, after the fight over health care is over.The White House referred questions about the specific proposal to the Treasury Department, but Press Secretary Robert Gibbs did say “The president, as many do in America, has long-term concerns about our debt and our deficit. Throughout the next several weeks and certainly into next year and beyond the president will continue to take steps to address fiscal responsibility.”

Treasury Department spokeswoman Meg Reilly did not respond directly to questions about the threat. Instead, she said the expectation is that the debt limit legislation will pass. “Our best estimate is that we will reach the debt ceiling in mid-to late-December. However, the government’s cash flows are volatile, and forecasting the precise date remains a difficult exercise. We expect Congress to raise the debt ceiling in a timely manner,” Reilly said.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) is one of the Democrats leading the charge for this commission, and he met with Obama last week to discuss the idea. As proposed, it would hand a significant amount of Congressional authority over entitlement programs to an outside body. That body would make recommendations that Congress would have to vote on, up or down–no filibusters.

That’s a bridge way too far for liberals, who see the commission as a backdoor approach to gutting Social Security. And that raises the question of what will happen when the debt-ceiling legislation actually hits the floor.

With the Senate just back from Thanksgiving recess, everything is speculative. The commission could be weakened, in order to relieve some liberal heartburn, or Obama could introduce his own ideas and gather support from the entire caucus. If Reid really wanted to play hardball, he could attach the debt-ceiling bill to the defense appropriations bill, making it politically difficult for anybody–even deficit hawks–to vote no.

But even if he attempted something so daring, the writing’s on the wall. Democrats have plenty left on their agenda, climate change and jobs chief among them. We can now add entitlement reform to the list.

Late update: To underscore just how serious these Democrats are about reducing the debt, 12 of them (and Independent Joe Lieberman) have signed a letter insisting the issue be addressed in short order.

Additional reporting by Christina Bellantoni

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at brian@talkingpointsmemo.com
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