Senate’s No. 2 Democrat calls for cuts to social safety net

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) called on fellow progressives to consider long-term changes to the social safety net. “We can’t be so naive to believe that just taxing the rich will solve our problems,” he said.
(Armando L. Sanchez, Chicago Tribune)

WASHINGTON — A top Democrat pressured fellow progressives Tuesday to consider long-term changes to the social safety net, even as the party digs in for a fight to save Medicare and other government programs from deep budget cuts.

As closed-door talks continue with the hope of a year-end deal, President Obama will travel to a Pennsylvania toy store this week to pressure Congress to extend the expiring tax cuts for the middle class, while letting those for the wealthiest 2% of Americans expire. Republicans are similarly taking their proposal of tax breaks for all on the road.


At the same time, Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat, tapped his ties to the liberal wing of the party to urge a broader deficit deal in 2013 that would include trims to Medicare and other entitlement cuts.

“We can’t be so naive to believe that just taxing the rich will solve our problems,” said Durbin, speaking before the influential liberal group Center for American Progress. “Put everything on the table. Repeat. Everything on the table.”

The assistant majority leader’s speech comes at a pivotal moment — the White House’s allies in the labor and progressive community have warned Obama not to cut Medicare, Medicaid and other government programs in talks with Republicans.

Progressive groups are targeting individual members of Congress and labor leaders are flying in activists from around the nation to Capitol Hill this week to lobby lawmakers to not cut the social safety net.

A group of mostly nude activists from the AIDS awareness group Act-Up protested at the office of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) on Tuesday. Several were arrested.

The White House met with some progressive groups Tuesday.

“Working people, jobless people and retirees, who just voted for a middle-class economy, shouldn’t have to sacrifice their healthcare and retirement security so that the richest 2% can continue getting more tax breaks,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in a statement.

The White House and Capitol Hill are working to prevent the combination of automatic tax increases and deep spending cuts coming at year’s end — what economists have warned would be a $500-billion hit to the economy that could spark another recession.

As Obama welcomed small-business owners to the White House and prepared to take his message on the road, congressional Republicans fought back with a campaign operation of their own.

Republicans say those at the higher tax brackets include small-business owners, and GOP lawmakers will be visiting such companies to make their case.

“The target of the president’s rallies should be the congressional Democrats who want to raise tax rates on small businesses rather than cut spending,” said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel.

Republicans are unwilling to consider a bill passed by the Senate that would continue tax breaks for most Americans as they work to keep tax rates low for incomes exceeding $250,000 for couples or $200,000 for singles.

The higher-income brackets include an estimated 3% of small-business owners.

Kim Geiger in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.