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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.

Senate Democrats are keeping their proposals for curbing the cost of social programs under wraps in order to avoid a split in their ranks as talks on the fiscal cliff begin Friday.

In order to preserve their leverage, Democratic leaders want to hold off as long as possible specific discussions of how they would trim the cost of entitlements.

“They are negotiating from a stronger position without doing that,” a Senate Democratic aide said Thursday.

Republicans have stressed that they will insist on cuts in domestic spending, what some call entitlement reform, as part of any agreement that would include more tax revenue.

Some liberals in the caucus are urging a high bar for any agreement that includes significant spending cuts. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., is crafting a letter with Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, urging President Barack Obama to strike a fiscal cliff deal only if there is a 1-to-1 ratio of tax increases to spending cuts. Obama has previously signaled he would seek an agreement with $2.50 in spending cuts for every new dollar in revenue.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has discouraged the lawmakers from sending the letter because it would give the impression that Democrats were divided and would take the focus off of Republicans, who are under pressure to allow for a tax rate hike.

As many as 13 Democratic senators, including Rockefeller and Harkin, have signed the letter, a source said, pointing to a possible fracturing among Democrats over spending in areas such as Medicare.

Although Obama has said further changes need to be made to Medicare to control its costs, the Rockefeller-Harkin letter virtually rules out any extensive modifications to entitlement programs.

“We urge you to reject changes to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security that would cut benefits, shift costs to states, alter the structure of these critical programs, or force vulnerable populations to bear the burden of deficit reduction efforts,” the letter says. “Each of these programs is a vital lifeline to the middle class. Social Security does not contribute to the federal deficit, and the Trust Fund is solvent until 2033. Medicare and Medicaid are already very efficient.”

If Democrats are unwilling to agree on enough changes to entitlement programs to satisfy Republicans, it is all but impossible that the GOP would agree to Democratic demands on taxes as part of a plan to avoid across-the-board spending cuts and a wholesale expiration of tax cuts.

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., declined to say Thursday whether he would entertain raising the Medicare retirement age or means testing of Medicare, as he left a closed door meeting of the committee.

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