President Barack Obama greets Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, as Vice President Joe Biden looks on, in the Capitol's House chamber before Obama delivered his State of the Union address, Jan. 20, 2015.
Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty

In bipartisan budget deal, not all ‘cuts’ are created equal

When Rachel asked Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) last night about the tentative budget agreement between the White House and congressional Republican leaders, the presidential hopeful conceded he hadn’t yet read the agreement, but he was skeptical.
“Our goal is to expand Social Security benefits [and] to push for a Medicare-for-all single-payer program,” Sanders said. I will not be supportive of cuts in those programs.”
It’s a safe bet that many progressive policymakers will feel the same way, which may raise doubts about the viability of the newly announced deal.
In practice, however, there are “cuts” and then there are “cuts.”
Democrats have quite a few reasons to like the budget deal – $80 billion in sequestration relief goes a long way – on top of the peace of mind that comes with eliminating the possibility of government shutdowns and debt-ceiling crises until 2017.
But did President Obama accept entitlement cuts in exchange? I’m reluctant to start parsing the meaning of the word “cut,” but the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent talked to a progressive expert this morning who sounded an optimistic note.
On Medicare and Social Security: Nancy Altman, the president of Social Security Works, a group that strenuously opposes benefits cuts and argues for their expansion, tells me that the deal “doesn’t actually cut benefits or really hurt beneficiaries who aren’t gaming the system.”
Altman says the Medicare cuts are all on the provider side, which could harm beneficiaries at some point, but it’s not a major concern.
It’s true that the deal includes “reforms” to the Social Security Disability Insurance program, which was facing major deadlines of its own, and Republicans had previously said they’d only divert funding from Social Security’s retirement insurance program to SSDI if Democrats accepted benefit cuts.
But Obama wasn’t willing to go that far and GOP leaders gave up on that demand.
As Social Security Works’ Altman added, the negotiators “stiffened the penalties for fraud, they extended nationwide efforts to make sure that payments are accurate and they closed a loophole in which people were gaming the system. They didn’t change eligibility requirements or reduce the level of benefits.”
Also note, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went into the process pushing for an increase in the Medicare eligibility age, but he gave up on this idea, too, and there’s nothing even close to this in the final agreement.
This is not to say the deal is completely tilted in Democrats’ favor, but given these details on social-insurance programs, I don’t expect much in the way of progressive opposition to the package.