Turmoil in Democratic ranks spread Friday over President Obama’s bid to reduce spending on Social Security and Medicare as part of intensifying deficit-reduction talks with congressional Republican leaders.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, met with Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. at the White House Friday morning. She declared later that House Democrats “would not reduce the deficit or subsidize tax cuts for the rich on the backs of America’s seniors.”
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode island Democrat, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, Vermont independent and one of the Senate’s most liberal members, held a conference call with representatives of more than 300 liberal groups, including MoveOn.org, the National Organization for Women and labor unions opposed to any cuts in entitlement programs such as Social Security.
“There’s been very little conversation between the White House and the Senate about this, and I think they’re making a grievous mistake if they think they can just present anything to us and assume that because we’re Democrats, we’ll go along with what the president has capitulated to,” Mr. Whitehouse said.
Mr. Obama told reporters in the White House Rose Garden Friday morning that his meeting with Mrs. Pelosi was “good.” He then retreated into the executive mansion without taking other questions.
But presidential spokesman Jay Carney acknowledged that Democratic lawmakers could feel pain at the polls next year if Mr. Obama strikes a deal that reduces spending on entitlement programs.
“These programs matter a lot to Democrats, as they should, because they matter a lot to the American people,” Mr. Carney said. “But absolutely there are tough choices here that in a different world we may not make.”
Negotiators from the administration and Congress are working through the weekend on proposals to reduce the deficit by up to $4 trillion over 10 years, primarily through spending cuts. Mr. Obama will meet again with congressional leaders at the White House Sunday to review the proposals.
The parties are trying to reach a deal before Aug. 2 to raise the nation’s debt limit of $14.29 trillion. Treasury Secretary Timothy M. Geither has warned that the U.S. would default on some of its obligations if the debt ceiling is not raised by the deadline. He said the fallout from default could lead to another recession.
Republican leaders are insisting on deep cuts in spending as part of any deal, and have said they will oppose broad-based tax increases.
In spite of the high stakes, Republicans expressed skepticism that negotiators will strike a compromise.
“It’s not like there’s an imminent deal about to happen,” House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, told reporters Friday. “There are serious disagreements about how to deal with this very serious problem.”
Asked about his expectations for Sunday’s scheduled meeting, Mr. Boehner held his hands wide apart and said, “I don’t know. I don’t think this problem has narrowed at all in the last several days.”
Mrs. Pelosi told reporters that she is still optimistic a deal can be reached. But, she said, “it has to be reflective of our values, because 10 years of a budget has a very serious impact on the future.”
She said any entitlement savings achieved through a “global grand plan” to reduce the deficit should be plowed back into the programs for seniors to extend the solvency of federal programs for the elderly.
“If the purpose is to strengthen Medicare, then let’s make sure that money goes to Medicare, not to deficit reduction,” Mrs. Pelosi told reporters.
Congressional Democrats are still smarting from the president’s deal with Republicans in December to extend the George W. Bush-era tax cuts for two more years. Liberal lawmakers opposed the agreement because it didn’t impose higher taxes on families earning more than $250,000 per year.
Mr. Carney said opponents of spending cuts on entitlements should focus on “distinctions” between the administration’s agenda and proposals advanced by Republican lawmakers.
“We can find savings in Medicaid and Medicare out of the cost of health care, not by transferring all of the burden onto seniors,” Mr. Carney said. “We certainly don’t think in order to pay for tax cuts or to balance the budget that we need to essentially end Medicare as we know it and voucherize it and shift costs of up to $6,000 per senior per year to pay for it.”