Obama Warned Not To Diss Democrats On Debt Deal

Republicans have been reluctant to buy into a debt-ceiling deal that includes tax hikes. Some Democrats fear the White House is going so far to please Republicans that President Obama is throwing his own party overboard.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Yesterday on this program, we heard about the hell-no caucus of the Republican Party. Those are conservative lawmakers who say they will not vote to raise the debt ceiling under any circumstances.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

Today, we turn our attention to the other side of the aisle. Some Democrats fear the White House is going so far to please Republicans that President Obama is undermining his own party.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO: The right wing often has more clout with Republican leaders than the left wing has with Democratic leaders. At least, that's how it looks to congressman Raul Grijalva of Arizona, whose pleas to the White House seem to fall on deaf ears.

Representative RAUL GRIJALVA (Democrat, Arizona): I've heard this said many times, that at the end of the day, we will have to stand with the deal and it's probably the best deal that we could get.

SHAPIRO: He's still seething that President Obama agreed to renew tax cuts for millionaires back in December, and the debt-ceiling debate looks to him like the same thing all over again. The White House talks about hundreds of billions of dollars in cuts to entitlement programs. Meanwhile, Republicans won't agree to increasing any taxes at all. This time, Grijalva says Democrats won't just roll over and take any bum deal the White House gives them.

Congressman GRIJALVA: I think the White House would make a serious mistake in assuming that the Democratic caucus in the House is going to vote for cuts in benefits in Social Security and Medicare. I think that would be a very, very big mistake.

SHAPIRO: More than 60 lawmakers have signed a letter saying, quote: We will not be forced to vote for a final agreement that we do not agree to.

Liberals have staged protests and written petitions. But President Obama seems to brush this views aside. He acknowledges how unpopular cuts to the social safety net are in his party. But this White House sees defying party doctrine as a source of political strength.

President BARACK OBAMA: It is hard to persuade people to do hard stuff that entails trimming benefits and increasing revenues. But the reason we've got a problem right now is people keep on avoiding hard things. And I think now is the time for us to go ahead and take it on.

SHAPRIO: Language is crucial to this debate. Everyone agrees that Medicare and Medicaid could benefit from changes that save money. Call those changes streamlining, and you're good. Call them cuts, and Democrats say you've just hurt the poor and seniors, not to mention Democrats' chances at winning elections. Democratic pollster Geoff Garin says appearances are nearly as important as reality.

Mr. GEOFF GARIN (Democratic Pollster): There's no question that people can turn this any which way they want. We know that from 2010, when the affordable care act made changes in Medicare to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of how health care is delivered, the Republicans went to town in attacking Democrats for quote-unquote Medicare cuts.

SHAPIRO: These programs are a vital part of the Democratic Party's identity, and party loyalists don't trust this White House to protect them. President Obama has promised not to slash benefits. That led Jake Tapper, of ABC, to ask White House spokesman Jay Carney to define the difference between slash and cut.

Mr. JAY CARNEY (White House Spokesman): Haven't you got like, a dictionary app on your iPhone?

Mr. JAKE TAPPER (Journalist): The point is, it's not the same thing as cut.

Mr. CARNEY: It's slash. And I don't mean the guitarist.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TAPPER: A pledge to not slash benefits is not the same thing as a pledge to not cut benefits.

SHAPIRO: To make everything murkier, all of these negotiations are happening behind closed doors. The potential deal changes every day, and information about what's in it comes through spinning, leaks and speculation. Neera Tanden, of the liberal Center for American Progress, is mystified that the focus is on cutting benefits at all. National polls show that most Americans would rather raise taxes on the wealthy than cut entitlements.

Ms. NEERA TANDEN (Center for American Progress): But that is not where the debate is in Washington. The debate that is in Washington is, as of right now -seems to be about changing our entitlements without putting significant revenue on the table at all - and not touching income taxes related to anybody, including millionaires.

SHAPIRO: Few think Democrats will actually be the ones to derail this deal. Or at least, that's what the White House hopes.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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