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Democrats Try to Band Together on Entitlements Ahead of Fiscal Cliff Talks

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Baucus declined to say Thursday whether he would consider raising the retirement age in a deal to avert the fiscal cliff.

Baucus, who will play a major role in the fiscal cliff negotiations, said the committee had a “very constructive meeting” discussing various ideas for averting the fiscal cliff. “We’re at the point where a lot of views were aired, but not dogmatically,” Baucus said of the bipartisan meeting. “It’s a very open discussion. The goal is to get the committee to reach an agreement.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who sits on the Finance and Budget committees, declined to say whether she would accept changes to Medicare and Medicaid. “I’m not going to get into that,” she said. “We’ve already begun that in health reform. We’ve already begun to bring down costs, and there’s certainly more we can do.”

Still, some liberals in the caucus are underscoring their opposition to cuts to entitlement programs as fiscal cliff negotiations begin in earnest, and have signaled they have no problem engaging in a pressure campaign directed at the president.

“We must not balance the budget on the backs of the elderly, the sick, the children, or the poor,” Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt, said. “We’re going to send a loud message to the leadership in the House, in the Senate and President Obama: Do not cut Social Security, do not cut Medicare, do not cut Medicaid.”

Joined by Harkin, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and several House Democrats, Sanders spoke Thursday in a Senate committee room before a boisterous crowd of more than 100 people, including some wearing shirts with the words, “Tax the Rich.”

White House spokesman Jay Carney reiterated Thursday that Obama is taking nothing off the table.

“Now, the president is not wedded to every detail in his plan,” Carney told reporters. “He has made that clear. He is willing and ready to compromise, and he welcomes the tone and content of the statements that many Republican leaders have said about their willingness to include revenues and to compromise.”

Such talk raises fears among some Democrats that Obama may give up prized programs in his search for a “grand bargain” with Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio.

Sen. Ron Wyden cautioned that negotiations are at the “early, kind of sparring” stages, and that the parties might yet come to an agreement to curb the growing cost of Medicare.

The key, the Oregon Democrat said, is to “intertwine policy judgments with the numbers.” Democrats, for example, must know that the Medicare guarantee and traditional Medicare are protected, he said. Then, he said, questions over the eligibility age for Medicare could be addressed in detail, with allowances made for retirees from different fields, for instance.

“You’ve got to make some of these policy judgments in order to have a real process of bipartisan agreement on the numbers,” Wyden said. “If you just go walk into a meeting and say it’s going to be this number and that number, it get pretty challenging in a hurry.”

Humberto Sanchez contributed to this report.

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