WASHINGTON -- Social Security does not contribute to the federal deficit and should not be a part of ongoing negotiations to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Tuesday, in a speech billed as a "major address making the progressive case for a bipartisan fiscal cliff deal."
Durbin's line in the sand on Social Security reflects an increasingly aggressive effort by Democrats to block changes to the program.
Over the past two years, the White House had made it clear in budget negotiations that it was open to Social Security benefit reductions as part of a larger deal that included tax hikes. Yet on Monday, White House spokesman Jay Carney appeared to back up Durbin's position, suggesting a "separate track" be used to reform Social Security. "We should address the drivers of the deficit, and Social Security currently is not a driver of the deficit," he said.
On Tuesday, asked to respond to Durbin's remarks, Carney said, "I can simply say it is the president's position when talking about a broad, balanced approach to dealing with our fiscal challenges that that includes dealing with our entitlements."
Durbin suggested that a separate commission to study Social Security be formed and charged with making recommendations by the end of 2013, which would then be voted on or amended by Congress.
The progressives' representative in deficit talks, Durbin has been at the negotiating table for nearly two years, both as a member of the Gang of Six, a bipartisan group that nearly struck a deal in 2011, and as panelist on the Simpson-Bowles commission, co-chaired by former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and Erskine Bowles, a former Clinton White House official and currently a director with Morgan Stanley.
The "fiscal cliff" refers to the moment early next year when the Bush tax cuts expire and automatic cuts to Pentagon and social spending go into effect.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said that he won't be part of any negotiations that include Social Security.
"Social Security is not part of the problem. That's one of the myths the Republicans have tried to create," Reid said. "Social Security is sound for the next many years. But we want to make sure that in the outer years, people are protected also. But it's not going to be part of the budget talks as far as I'm concerned."
And at a press conference on Tuesday, Reid said that President Barack Obama had told the fiscal cliff negotiators at a recent meeting that "Social Security is not going to be part of this."
Earlier on Tuesday, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said on MSNBC's "Jansing & Co." that Social Security should not be part of deficit negotiations. Sen.-elect Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has said the same, as has Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), meanwhile, has suggested that Social Security cuts should be on the table.
The Democrats' position on Medicare and Medicaid is less clear, partly because the programs themselves are more complicated. Whereas reducing Social Security costs necessarily translates to cutting benefits, it is possible to find "savings" in Medicare and Medicaid without reducing benefits. Allowing Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices, for instance, could drive down costs without requiring seniors to take fewer medications.
In Durbin's remarks, which were prepared for delivery at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank and political operation, he said that Medicare and Medicaid should be off the table during fiscal cliff negotiations. "Progressives should be willing to talk about ways to ensure the long-term viability of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, but those conversations should not be part of a plan to avert the fiscal cliff," Durbin said.
During his talk, he also said he was open to reforms that extended the solvency of the programs without harming beneficiaries.
Asked by HuffPost if the senator opposed any and all cuts that would hit beneficiaries, Max Gleischman, a Durbin spokesman, said that Durbin "believes we should protect the vast majority of current beneficiaries. ... His position is that we ought to discuss making small changes to programs to ensure their long-term viability."
But Gleischman said those discussions should only take place after a broad deal is struck to avoid the fiscal cliff.
UPDATE: 3:22 p.m. -- Later on Tuesday, after meeting with Senate Democrats, Durbin attempted to clarify his position on including Medicare and Medicaid in the fiscal cliff talks.
"What I'm saying is, what I'm talking about now is the immediate -- what takes us to the end of the year to avoid the fiscal cliff," he said, adding that Medicare and Medicaid should not be part of those talks. But, he said, "When you're talking about long-term deficit reduction, $4 trillion worth, entitlement reform needs to be part of it."
Social Security, too?
"No. Social Security you take off the table and put in a separate commission," Durbin said.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a top deputy to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), echoed Durbin's remarks during an interview with MSNBC's Tamron Hall.
"With respect to Social Security, I agree with what the president has said and what [Rep.] Peter DeFazio said. Social Security is not part of the deficit and debt problem. We're not going to raid Social Security in order to balance other parts of the budget," Van Hollen said.
Van Hollen also rejected cutting Medicare benefits, instead saying that modernizing the system to reduce health care costs would be a more effective way of reducing the program's costs.
Zach Carter contributed reporting