WASHINGTON -- A group of progressive lawmakers led by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Thursday called for protecting Social Security and Medicare benefits in any deficit reduction deal.
"We're going to send a loud message to the leadership in the House, in the Senate and President Obama. Do not cut Social Security, do not cut Medicare, do not cut Medicaid," Sanders said. "Deficit reduction is a serious issue but it must be done in a way that is fair. We must not balance the budget on the backs of the elderly, the sick, the children or the poor."
Watch video from the press conference above.
Thursday's press conference was the latest in a series of high-profile events surrounding negotiations to avert the so-called "fiscal cliff," a set of tax increases and spending cuts set to go into effect on Jan. 1. Although no immediate economic damage will be inflicted if Congress and President Barack Obama fail to act by the new year, several months of higher tax rates on the middle class would likely throw the country into a recession.
Obama has said forcefully that he will allow the Bush-era tax cuts for those making more than $250,000 a year to expire at the end of the year, but he has been much less clear about the fate of Social Security and Medicare. On Wednesday, Obama told reporters he wants to cut "a big deal, a comprehensive deal" with Republicans to reduce the federal budget deficit that will tackle "entitlements."
"I do not often quote Ronald Reagan," Sanders said. "This is what Ronald Reagan said on October 7, 1984. 'Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit. Social Security is totally funded by the payroll tax ... if you reduce the outflow of Social Security, that money would not go into the general fund to reduce the deficit.' End of quote, Ronald Reagan -- which goes to show you, anybody can be right at least once."
But on Thursday, liberal lawmakers struck a supportive tone when invoking Obama.
"We will have your back, you will have ours, together we will give President Obama all the support he needs during these negotiations," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.)
Social Security does not contribute to the deficit. It is funded by payroll taxes, and currently enjoys a $2.7 trillion surplus, enough to fund the program without any changes until 2033. While lawmakers at Thursday's event universally rejected any cuts to Social Security benefits, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) told the crowd he would be happy to boost revenue for the program by allowing income for people who make more than $108,000 a year to be subject to the payroll tax. Doing so, he said, would allow beneficiaries to receive an additional $65 a month through 2050.
"If you wanna fix Social Security, there it is. Make those making millions of dollars a year pay the same thing and the same rate as those making 40 or 50 or 60 thousand dollars a year," Harkin said. "This is not magic. It can be done."
Medicare, by contrast, is a major driver of long-term deficits, driven by the abnormally high cost of health care in the United States. Whitehouse said that any changes to Medicare included in a debt-reduction package should focus on reducing health care costs, not on cutting benefits for seniors.
Whitehouse also said that the Defending Social Security Caucus, a 19-member group of senators founded by Sanders, would create a "firewall" in Congress to protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid from cuts. Sanders highlighted Wednesday comments from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) who said he would oppose any deal to cut the deficit that would reduce Social Security benefits. The notion that Social Security is in dire financial straits, Reid says, is a "myth" created by Republicans.
While most members of Congress at the event struck a positive tone, Rep. Keith Ellison's (D-Minn.) comments indicated a belief that Social Security is indeed in the crosshairs for a debt-reduction package, with strong political forces allied to cut benefits.
Averting cuts to benefits will "take a big lift from all of us," Ellison said.
Sanders' press conference, which comes ahead of an Obama meeting with lawmakers on Friday, showed some Democrats are already digging in their heels as negotiations begin.
"Over my dead body will we cut benefits to Social Security and Medicare," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.).
A host of advocacy groups brought citizens to witness the press conference and tell personal stories to the crowd. Barbara Gibson, 51, did not speak at the podium but was among the dozens of people who attended. She told HuffPost she came to the event after a friend knocked on her Northwest Washington, D.C. door last week and told her about OurDC, a nonprofit that has staged many anti-Republican and pro-jobs protests at the Capitol in the past year. The union-backed group brought tens of people in orange and black jackets and hats to Thursday's event.
Gibson said she's been unemployed since losing her security guard job in 2010 after she took three months off following surgery to have her gallbladder removed. She said she didn't receive benefits from the programs under discussion at the event, but supported OurDC's message about jobs.
"I don't get Social Security, I don't get nothing," she said. "I just want a job."