Will Obama Cave on Social Security?
With chained CPI a likely part of any debt
ceiling deal, outraged progressives are
organizing in advance
By Josh Eidelson
January 12, 2013
A top official at the nation's largest union federation
slammed a Social Security cut proposal that's been
floated by President Obama, but stopped short of
calling it a deal-breaker in the next round of budget
"We remain strongly opposed" to chained CPI, AFL-
CIO government affairs director Bill Samuel told
Salon. "It's a very substantial benefit cut."
"Chained CPI" is a proposed alternative method of
calculating cost of living adjustments, which would
reduce future increases in Social Security benefits.
Samuel said that for many seniors on fixed incomes,
even "the current system may not be adequate." He
called the claim that chained CPI could be
implemented in a way that would be fair to such
retirees "sort of ludicrous."
Obama has repeatedly touted chained CPI as an
aspect of a potential "Grand Bargain" with
Republicans to reduce the deficit. In a "Meet the
Press" interview aired on Dec. 30, the president
highlighted it both as an example of his willingness
to make concessions to the GOP and part of his
"pursuit of strengthening Social Security for the
The same day that interview aired, Republicans
reportedly dropped their insistence on including
chained CPI in the scaled-down so-called fiscal cliff
deal, signaling they expect it to be part of a larger
deficit deal in the next few months. So, it appears,
does Obama. Can labor stop them?
"The White House has signaled many times they're
very open to this concept, which puts us in a very
precarious situation," said Eric Kingson, a co-chair
of Strengthen Social Security. That coalition, whose
300-some member groups include the AFL-CIO and
some of its largest unions, supports increasing
Social Security benefits and opposes chained CPI,
which Kingson called "a disguised benefit cut."
Kingson and fellow co-chair Nancy Altman told
Salon they would recommend that the Strengthen
Social Security coalition oppose any overall deficit
deal that includes chained CPI. Altman, whom the
AFL-CIO is urging Obama to nominate as Social
Security commissioner, said, "I think we would
certainly have the view that there should be a line
in the sand that should not be crossed." But she
noted that individual coalition members would
"have to weigh a lot of things" in deciding whether
their own groups would also support torpedoing an
overall deal over chained CPI.
No member of that coalition is more prominent than
the AFL-CIO, the federation of 56 unions that played
a major role in reelecting the president. So will the
AFL-CIO pledge to oppose any deficit deal that
includes chained CPI? "I'm not going to answer
that," said Samuel. "That's theoretical. I expect we
will remain opposed to chained CPI."
Samuel said that the federation's overall priorities in
any budget deal are the same ones it pushed during
the "fiscal cliff" fight: raising taxes on the top 2
percent of Americans and averting cuts to Medicare,
Medicaid and Social Security. In a follow-up email
to Salon, Samuel added that it was "very unlikely"
that the AFL-CIO would support any deal that
included safety net cuts.
The AFL-CIO's strategy for the current budget wars
will be a topic of discussion at its Executive
Committee meeting on Wednesday.
National Nurses United executive director RoseAnn
DeMoro, one of 53 members of the AFL-CIO
Executive Council, said the federation needs to take
a hard line. "I think they should borrow some
cement from the building trades and draw a line in
the sand and keep it there ." she told Salon. "It
would be unconscionable for the AFL-CIO to
maintain a position of any type of wiggle room with
respect to that." DeMoro said that the varying
politics of its affiliate unions make the AFL-CIO "a
mixture of a whole lot of different forces," but said it
"needs to separate itself from the Democratic Party
and stand on its own."
The AFL-CIO drew a bright line early in the fiscal
cliff showdown. In an interview the day after
President Obama's reelection, AFL-CIO president
Richard Trumka told Salon that the federation
would oppose any fiscal cliff deal that didn't fully
end the Bush tax cuts for the top 2 percent, or
included any cuts to entitlements (chained CPI
included). But on Dec. 20, after Obama was widely
reported to have offered Speaker John Boehner a
"Grand Bargain" including chained CPI, Trumka
told the Huffington Post's Sam Stein that while "we
oppose the cuts," "Obviously I want to look at the
whole deal before we make any decision."
On New Year's Eve, hours before the Senate voted to
approve a deal that had no entitlement cuts but
extended Bush tax cuts on family incomes up to
$450,000, Trumka weighed in with a series of
critical tweets, including "its not a good #fiscalcliff
deal if it gives more tax cuts to 2 percent and sets
the stage for more hostage taking." (According to
Samuel, those tweets were meant to indicate that
"we were concerned about the direction the deal was
taking.") But in an emailed statement the next day,
Trumka called the deal "a breakthrough in
beginning to restore tax fairness," and said it
"achieves some key goals of working families."
However, he said, "lawmakers should have listened
Asked whether that deal had met the minimum
standards Trumka outlined in November, Samuel
said, "I think it depends how you count this, but it
came awfully close." He said that further tax
increases on the top 2 percent will be necessary. But
he touted the absence of entitlement cuts, the
extension of unemployment benefits, and Obama's
success in "breaking through the decades-long
Republican opposition to raising taxes." Samuel
said he believes Obama "did the best he could,
given the circumstances."
What's next? According to the AFL-CIO, in the two
months following Election Day, the federation
mobilized tens of thousands of people for
demonstrations supporting taxing the top 2 percent
and opposing benefit cuts, and generated over
15,000 phone calls. Samuel said the AFL-CIO will
"continue, and maybe even accelerate or ramp up"
such efforts over the coming weeks, with a
particular focus on the President's Day recess.
Samuel said he was optimistic that, once outcry
mounts over GOP hostage-taking on the debt
ceiling, Obama would be able to avoid making any
concessions in exchange for raising it. Instead,
Samuel predicted that the main deal-making will
revolve around the looming sequester cuts and the
coming expiration of government funding.
Samuel said he believes that pressure from the AFL-
CIO and its allies has succeeded in taking other
entitlement cuts, like raising the eligibility age for
Medicare, "off the table." As for chained CPI, he said,
Obama "clearly doesn't have the strong visceral
reaction against it that we do. But I think he
believes it's a pretty tough measure, and my
assumption is he wouldn't push it unless he was
getting something pretty significant in return" from
Republicans. Samuel said that increasing public
opposition to chained CPI could reduce the
willingness of the president, as well as Democrats
and Republicans in Congress, to put it on the table.
While it's already "pretty unpopular," he said, "we
have to make it a proposal that is unacceptable to
"We have a healthy degree of concern," said Samuel.
"One would have to going into this fight - it's not
going to be easy. Our record so far suggests that we
can be successful."
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