Larson walking a fine line as debt discussions drag on

WASHINGTON–As the debt negotiations drag on and the stakes ratchet up, is Rep. John Larson in a tough spot, or a sweet spot?

As chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, Larson has to go to bat for his party’s core policy and political interests, which include preserving Social Security and Medicare benefits. At the same time, the 1st District Democrat doesn’t want to open a rift with President Barack Obama, who has put those two entitlement programs on the table as a way to entice Republicans to strike a grand budget-and-debt bargain.

Walking that fine line–between supporting the liberals in his caucus and supporting his party’s president–is the tough part.

The easy part, for now at least, is that the GOP’s refusal to entertain a sweeping fiscal reform package, if it includes any tax increases, gives Larson an easy decoy.

After a closed-door session with House Democrats Tuesday morning, Larson faced a raft of questions from reporters about an apparent split between Obama and Democrats in Congress about how far to go in the negotiations with Republicans over raising the nation’s debt limit and reining in federal spending.

At a White House press conference on Monday, Obama said he’s willing to “take on significant heat from my party to get something done,” including embracing “significant changes” to Medicare and Social Security. The White House even floated the prospect that Obama could accept raising eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 67–a nonstarter for most Democrats in Congress.

Larson has said that any cuts to Social Security or Medicare benefits are unacceptable. Larson has repeatedly said those two programs reflect the fundamental values of the Democratic Party. And although he’s left the door open to changes that “strengthen” the two programs, he has also warned top negotiators not to expect Democrats to provide the votes to get a deal through the House if it slices benefits.

As the rhetoric heats up, all the players are trying to discern how a big deficit-reduction deal, or the lack of one, will play out in the next election. Republicans are clearly worried about the political ripple effects of any agreement that includes an increase in taxes, which could spark disaffection among their Tea Party supporters, among other things.

And House Democrats are reluctant to cede any ground that could cost them the votes of seniors, a powerful voting bloc. They were buoyed by their special-election victory in a New York congressional contest earlier this year, in which the Democratic candidate won a surprise victory in part because of voter opposition to House Republicans’ proposal to privatize Medicare.

Any dramatic changes to that health insurance program for the elderly, as part of a budget-and-debt deal, could take a powerful political weapon away from Democrats as they seek to regain control of the House. Asked today about the White House’s latest signals on the Medicare eligibility age and whether the president was undercutting the Democrats politically on that issue, Larson said no.

“In all of these discussions… there is nothing on the table unless everything is on the table,” he said. “In that context, members of our caucus, though [they have] deep and abiding concerns about Social Security and Medicare, respect what the president is doing. We have not seen the details with regard to that. But we inherently trust our leadership and the president to do the right thing.”

Asked to talk about the conflict he feels between trying to take Social Security and Medicare cuts off the table and wanting to support Obama’s goal of getting a “grand bargain,” Larson said that was “the most important question” right now. But he didn’t really answer it, instead highlighting Republican divisions and the GOP’s refusal to put tax hikes in play.

“Yes, it can be frustrating to several members of our caucus when we see only one-sided negotiations, and only the president willing to put everything on the table,” Larson said. “And it becomes even more frustrating when you see the Republican leadership leave the table, walk out, say this is not possible.”

There’s no question that the decision by Republicans to ditch a broader budget deal aimed at generating $4 trillion in debt reduction over the next ten years, as Obama has pushed for, makes Larson’s job much easier. And since there’s no detailed proposal on the table, Larson and others can hedge on questions about how far the Democrats will go on specific spending reductions and instead talk generally about a hard-line against entitlement benefit cuts.

“A lot of what’s going on now is straight Kabuki theatre,” said Christopher Barnes, a former Larson aide who now works as a pollster for the Pert Group, a Connecticut consulting firm. “And everyone needs to play their role to try to get an outcome.”

Larson’s role isn’t to hammer out the details of a deal. House Speaker John Boehner, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other top lawmakers are the ones being called down to the White House every day for meetings with Obama. Larson is the 4th ranking House Democrat, and his main job is to make sure the sentiments of the House Democratic Caucus are heard, as Pelosi and others step up to the negotiating table.

Larson’s role is to be “one of the enforcers of the will of the Democratic Caucus,” Barnes noted. So it’s his job to say–very loudly–that Democrats will not go along with any deal that trims Medicare and Social Security, which have emerged as Obama’s main bargaining chips in the negotiations.

“If he doesn’t fight hard enough or the caucus doesn’t, that weakens the president’s hand,” Barnes said. “From the White House’s position, they want the Democrats to be banging the gongs and making all the noise. They want them coming out and saying [no entitlement program cuts]… because then whatever the president gives up looks like a much bigger give.”

So it’s no wonder that, when asked whether he agrees with Obama that a larger debt deal is the best route even if that means trimming entitlements, or if he’d prefer a smaller debt-reduction package that left Social Security and Medicare untouched, Larson again treaded carefully.

“We would prefer to see our markets calm, our people back to work, and our vital programs with regard to their benefits intact,” he said. Democrats will embrace measures that strengthen the nation’s entitlement programs, he added, “but when it comes to benefits for its people in Social Security and Medicare, we have a drawn a line.”