Democratic senators are pleading with President Obama to abandon his proposal to trim Social Security benefits before it becomes a liability for them in the midterm elections.
The president proposed a new formula for calculating benefits in his budget last year, in hopes that the olive branch to Republicans would persuade them to back tax increases in a broader fiscal deal.
But Democratic lawmakers say Obama should shelve the idea now that they are facing a difficult midterm election where they need to turn out the liberal base to preserve their Senate majority.
“I’m not sure why we should be making concessions when the Republicans show absolutely no willingness to do the same,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).
Democrats acknowledge it may be awkward for Obama to rescind his proposal, but say it would unwise of him to repeat the offer in the budget that is due out next month.
“I think it’s difficult for the president to pull it back after he already floated it but I would love to see it shelved until Republicans show they’re actually going to do something on their side of the ledger,” Murphy said.
Obama proposed nearly $1 trillion in spending cuts in his budget, including a switch to using the Chained Consumer Price Index (CPI), which liberal policy experts estimate could cost seniors thousands of dollars in benefits over their lifetimes.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank, projected that most future beneficiaries would see a 2 percent reduction in benefits during the course of retirement.
Supporters of chained CPI argue it is a more accurate measure of inflation, and say the reduction in federal spending would ease the deficit over time.
Obama said he made the proposal to get Republicans to the negotiating table, but the move rankled Democrats on both sides of the Capitol.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), a liberal independent who caucuses with Democrats, said lawmakers have told White House chief of staff Denis McDonough to drop chained CPI from this year’s budget proposal.
“We have talked to his chief of staff and made that very clear,” said Sanders, who is co-founder of the Defending Social Security Caucus.
Congressional Democrats grumbled last year that Republicans never seriously entertained the thought of ending tax breaks for wealthy individuals and corporations.
“I certainly hope that the president has learned a lesson from this whole process,” Sanders said. “To be honest with you, I just can’t imagine what staff people gave him the disastrous advice to propose a chain CPI, which from both a public policy point of view and political point of view is totally absurd.”
“He should recognize that was a mistake. It should not be in his budget at all,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Harkin said some centrists in the caucus support chained CPI, but they are in the distinct minority.
One of those centrists is Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who is running for reelection this year and facing a possible challenge from Ed Gillespie, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Warner said in an interview that he is still hopeful of a broader deal to reduce the deficit. He said Democrats should keep chained CPI on the table if they expect Republicans to compromise on taxes.
Liberal Democrats say cutting Social Security benefits, even what centrists view as moderate cuts, is broadly unpopular across age groups. They say there mere proposal of reductions would amount to a self-inflicted political wound that would come back to haunt their party in the midterm election.
“It’s a very controversial issue at a difficult time for the senior community,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who declined to express support or opposition to the proposal.
A Pew Research poll released this month showed Republican voters are more enthusiastic than Democrats about the November election.
The survey found 63 percent of Republicans were looking forward to the election, while only 53 percent of Democrats felt the same way. Pollsters found a similar enthusiasm gap in January of 2010, before Republicans captured control of the House and picked up Senate seats.
In recent weeks, political handicappers have upped the chances of Republicans capturing the Senate in November.
White House and Senate Democratic strategists have tried to rekindle the enthusiasm of Democratic base voters by focusing on income inequality. Senate Democrats have made extending unemployment benefits and raising minimum wage two of their top agenda items this year.
Robert Borosage, co-director of Campaign for America’s Future, a liberal advocacy group, said it would be a serious blunder if Obama gave Republicans an opening to accuse his party of pushing Social Security cuts.
“I think it’s very counterproductive and not just with the base,” Borosage said.
Borosage noted that Republicans reaped a disproportionate share of the senior vote in the 2010 GOP wave election but have steadily lost their edge among that age group in recent years.
He noted that Republicans bashed Obama and Democrats in 2012 for cutting Medicare to raise money for the Affordable Care Act, even though House GOP Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) kept those cuts in his own budget proposals.
“The last thing you want to do in terms of the politics is allow Republicans to go across the country and say the president wants to cut Social Security before the election,” he said.
Obama is officially scheduled to release his budget next month, but is likely to delay the fiscal blueprint until March or April, as he did last year. The Hill