Liberals were surprised to find themselves cheering on Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) this week as he argued before the Center for American Progress that Democrats should resist benefit cuts to Medicare and Medicaid and keep Social Security out of the negotiations entirely. Durbin, the majority whip, is a leading Democratic supporter of the Simpson-Bowles debt commission, which liberal groups denounced as a nightmare solution to the long-term deficit, so his words carry special weight.
"It's a weird thing that Democratic leaders like Dick Durbin and Chris Van Hollen appear to be embracing the ideas that progressives are pushing," Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, told TPM. "I read Dick Durbin's speech and it's actually beautiful."
Borosage also took note of Durbin's rhetoric, calling him a "stalking horse for the president" that could signal good news.
Labor and progressive leaders came away from a private meeting with White House officials Tuesday encouraged as well, according to an attendee who spoke with the Washington Post's Greg Sargent. In particular, hopes are rising that the president is willing to go over the so-called fiscal cliff on Jan. 1 in order to force Republicans to pass a bill that preserves the Bush tax cuts for the bottom 98 percent of income earners. Combine that with loud grumbling among some Republicans about the right's resistance to tax increases and the outlook is looking even better on the revenue side.
The composition of the Senate is also a factor. Several popular progressive candidates will join the Senate in January, most notably Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin, while some of the left's most hated centrists are on the way out, most notably Joe Lieberman. Activists think they'll have a powerful set of messengers for their favored deficit reduction ideas, like allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices and reducing military spending, especially if negotiations continue past the lame duck session.
That said, it's early in the game and liberal groups are doing all they can to keep the heat on wavering Democrats. There are still concerns that the markets might grow jittery as the new year approaches, pushing nervous lawmakers toward the first deal House Republicans offer.
AFL-CIO organizers from around the country descended on Washington this week to lobby lawmakers to protect entitlement benefits and hold firm on ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest top 2 percent of Americans. And the PCCC released a poll of New Hampshire voters on Tuesday showing that a plan championed by Elizabeth Warren to raise taxes on the rich while reducing subsidies was a political winner. And MoveOn.org is hand-delivering letters to every representative in Congress telling them to oppose benefit cuts.
"We've been heartened by some of the things we've heard," Ilya Sheyman, campaigns director for MoveOn.org, told TPM. "But there's so much at stake that our members don't feel like they can wait on the sidelines and not apply pressure."