Susan Davis, USA TODAY
6:47PM EST December 11. 2012 - WASHINGTON - Democrats are united behind President Obama's proposal to raise tax rates on the wealthiest of Americans, but some Democrats worry the president could be willing to make further concessions on entitlement programs to avert the "fiscal cliff" than many Democrats can support.
Any final deal has to include Democratic concessions on entitlement programs, including Medicare and Social Security, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Tuesday on the House floor. "Where are the president's spending cuts? The longer the White House slow-walks this process, the closer our economy gets to the fiscal cliff," he said.
Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, confirmed a new counter-offer was sent to the White House on Tuesday that includes proposals to overhaul entitlement programs. He declined to offer specifics.
Democratic angst at making any significant changes to entitlement programs in the short-term-combined with Republican reluctance to raise taxes-highlights the tricky path Obama and Boehner face at finding a deal that can pass a GOP-controlled House and a Democratic-controlled Senate before Dec. 31.
If Washington doesn't act before the end of the year, all of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts will expire affecting practically every American household. Billions of spending cuts will also begin to take place in order to achieve $1.2 trillion in across the board cuts over the next decade. Combined, the two unpopular budget deadlines threaten to throw the U.S. economy back in to recession.
The three most frequently floated short-term proposals to reduce entitlement spending in order to get Republicans on board are increasing the Medicare eligibility age, charging wealthier seniors more for their health care benefits, and using a less generous way to calculate cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security beneficiaries.
"We're not proposing those three," Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said. "I agree that everything is on the table, but that doesn't mean (Democrats are) for everything."
Democrats are also under pressure from their base.
Labor unions, including the Service Employees International Union, are lobbying lawmakers to oppose any deal that cuts benefits. The Center for American Progress, a leading liberal think tank, released a report Tuesday outlining opposition to hiking the Medicare eligibility age, arguing that it threatens to leave as many as 435,000 seniors between the ages of 65 and 67 uninsured.
Obama has offered $400 billion in entitlement savings in his initial proposal that includes changes to beneficiaries, but Republicans and outside deficit hawks, including Obama's debt commission co-chairman Erskine Bowles, have said more concessions are required to cut the deficit and rein in long-term health care spending.
Fueling Democrats' concerns is Obama's previous willingness to negotiate with Republicans on these proposals. In unsuccessful deficit reduction talks in 2011, Obama and Boehner also discussed options that included raising the Medicare eligibility age and changing the way Social Security benefits are calculated.
The White House now says that Social Security changes should be on a "separate track" than fiscal cliff talks, but few on Capitol Hill are privy to the private talks between Obama and Boehner that have been closely guarded by a small cadre of aides. "I wish I knew more than you did about the negotiations. I don't," Hoyer said.
In an interview with ABC News Tuesday, Obama did not reject outright a proposal to raise the Medicare age but said he wasn't sure how much money it would save.
Liberal Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said he did not support raising the Medicare age or changes to calculating Social Security benefits because they are "direct attacks" on the working class. Asked if there were Democratic concerns that Obama might be more willing to negotiate on those issues he said, "There's thoughts of that, that's why we talk to them regularly," Brown said.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., also said he has made his views known to the White House. "I've taken the opportunity to talk to people I believe are advising directly the president on these issues. I'm sure my other colleagues have expressed the same."
It would be hard for Democrats to support a final deal including any combination of these three proposals, Cardin said. "Every single one of those affects beneficiaries," he said. "We think that when you look at shifting (costs to beneficiaries), you're not going to help the economy and you're going to burden these people unnecessarily."