Pelosi flexes muscle as House Democrats prepare for final debt ceiling negotiations

Chris Moody
Political Reporter
The Ticket

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has so far played a minor, background role in the negotiations between President Obama and congressional Republicans over raising the debt ceiling. But she sought to change all that Friday, in a private meeting with Obama to drive home her earlier pledge to oppose any deal that cuts the nation's entitlement programs.

Pelosi emerged from a meeting with House Democrats Friday to announce that they remain "firm" in their commitment to keep Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare free from cuts.

One day earlier, Pelosi made clear that many House Democrats fervidly oppose the White House's bid to place cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security on the table during the debt-ceiling talks. Republican leaders, meanwhile, say they won't proceed with negotiations unless such cuts are included, together with provisions to restrain the future growth of government spending.

"We do not support cuts in benefits for Social Security and Medicare," Pelosi said. "Any discussion of Medicare or Social Security should be on its own table. I have said that before. You want to take a look at Social Security? Then look at it on its own table. But do not consider Social Security a piggy bank for giving tax cuts to the wealthiest people in our country."

It isn't surprising to see the former Speaker flex a little muscle. Through all the big deals negotiated between Republicans and the White House--even the one that extended Bush-era tax rates, which happened while House Democrats still held the  majority and Pelosi was Speaker of the House--she often found herself sitting on the bench, waiting to be called into the game. Now the country is faced with a dilemma that will need her to help fix it--and she's understandably squeezing every bit of leverage she can out of the situation.

The details of the deal are still pending, but both parties are examining ways to reduce federal spending by $4 trillion over the next  10 years. Obama earlier this week said he would consider including the entitlement programs in those cuts, an admission that has received little support from his party.

Members of the House Progressive Caucus have remained the most vocal about their opposition to the deal. Caucus leaders sent a letter to Obama Thursday urging him to strip entitlements from the negotiations, or risk losing Democratic support.

"Not only am I not going to vote for it, I am going to whip my caucus as hard as I can to persuade them not to support it," House Progressive Caucus co-chair Rep. Keith Ellison told the Minnesota Post.

Rank-and-file members are also primed to go to battle over entitlements.

"You want a fight?" said Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA) recently during a press conference. "If anybody in this building wants to take on Social Security—privatize it, change the benefits by altering the Consumer Price Index or by any other method—know this: You've got a fight on your hands."

Still, at least some Democratic lawmakers actually do support at least one of the measures Garemendi cited: reducing benefits by indexing them to the Consumer Price Index. As  Talking Points Memo reporter Brian Beutler points out, congressional Democrats have indicated some backing for an approach to altering Social Security in a way that would reduce benefits without the measure necessarily qualifying as a "cut." By pegging the Cost of Living Adjustments to a lower inflation estimate, Congress could, technically, reduce spending for the program and avoid at least some of the political fallout that would come with deeper outright cuts to the program.

Of course, since the exact details of the deal remain behind closed doors, much of the talk at this point is mere posturing. The true moment of reckoning will come for both sides as more concrete details surface over the next few days.

It's still unclear whether House Speaker John Boehner will even be able to secure votes from a wide majority of Republicans. So for this thing to pass, it will need every Democratic vote it can get. And Pelosi knows it.