Democrats dodge questions on spending cuts

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

President Obama’s latest fiscal cliff offer to support deeper spending cuts to popular government programs puts his Democratic allies on Capitol Hill in a tough spot on Tuesday, driving them to dodge questions about whether they could support it.

Obama’s plan calls for $1.2 trillion in spending cuts that include changes like slowing the cost-of-living increases for Social Security beneficiaries -- a reform Senate Democrats declared off the table weeks ago.

So now, Obama’s proposal puts Democrats in a bit of a political pickle.

Democrats can’t embrace Obama’s plan for fear of getting hammered by liberal interest groups and giving Republican House Speaker John Boehner room to push for further entitlement cuts.

Conversely, Democrats can’t threaten to scuttle a deal if the cuts are included because it could undermine Obama’s negotiating position. And while Democrats are likely to support the cuts as part of a larger fiscal cliff package, they can’t say so now.

So, they’re not saying much of anything.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus refused to comment on Obama’s latest offer because it wasn’t a done deal.  
“I want to see what the deal is and I don’t want be negotiating, undermining the president by commenting on all of these different proposals that come out. They’re doing it, the speaker and the president. Godspeed, and hope they make it because it’s really important.”

The late Monday night leak of the White House plan left Senate Democrats scrambling on Tuesday morning to explain how the new spending cuts affected a deal’s chance of passage. And even after a lunchtime briefing by White House negotiator Rob Nabors, Democratic leaders were still dodging reporters’ question.

“I haven’t seen their proposal,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat.

But hadn’t he just been briefed by Nabors?

“He didn’t get into specifics,” Durbin said, quickening his pace as he walked away from reporters.

Sen. Patty Murray, the No. 4 Democrat in the Senate, fell back on old talking points.

“We have been consistent from day one. Unless there is significant revenue on the table that was fairly balanced, we are nowhere. And to this point we haven’t gotten there so there is no plan,” she said before waiving off further questions and bolting for the senators-only elevator.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, a moderate Democrat and close Obama ally, said she plans to wait until a deal is struck before weighing in. "I am not going to comment on any of the parts until it appears something's moving," she said.

White House spokesman Jay Carney defended the proposal to slow the cost-of-living increases for Social Security beneficiaries, calling the chained CPI provision a “technical adjustment” that would protect the most vulnerable.

And even liberal senators who don’t like chained CPI stopped short of criticizing Obama for including it.

Asked about chained CPI, Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell said, “no, no, no.” But she was less definitive about its ability to be a deal killer. “I don’t know about that,” she said.

Republicans and Boehner were close to a deal on the White House offer Monday night, but Boehner balked in part because it didn’t include enough cuts and raised tax rates on those making more than $400,000, down from his position that the tax hikes should only hit income of $1 million or more, a Democratic Senate leadership aide said.

Boehner called to tell the White House Monday night that he was unveiling a backup plan Tuesday morning and the White House then leaked the details of its latest offer, the aide said.

Boehner’s backup, the so-called Plan B, is to run legislation that would extend the expiring Bush-era tax cuts for everybody but those making over $1 million. Democrats blasted the plan as a gimmick. On MSNBC, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi called it “plan befuddled” and said Democrats would not vote for it.

Democrats reason that if Boehner can get 218 votes for a bill that would raise taxes on millionaires, he could also get the needed votes to pass a bill that raises taxes on the wealthy in exchange for more spending cuts.

And by leaking details of its plan last night, the White House hoped to upstage Boehner’s Plan B announcement, said a Democratic Senate leadership aide.

“The details of the president’s plan basically one upped Boehner by showing an even bigger move to the middle on entitlements than Boehner has showed on taxes,” the aide said.

Michael Catalini, Nancy Cook and Jim O’Sullivan contributed to this report.

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