As President Obama and Congressional Republicans continue their standoff over the debt ceiling and flirt with cuts to Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare, the loudest voice in Washington for protecting the elderly, the poor, and the middle class in the United States is Senator Bernie Sanders, Independent of Vermont.
Before Obama was reelected, Sanders worried that the President and his Democratic colleagues were too willing to accept Republican arguments about the need to balance the budget with cuts that would hurt the most vulnerable -- while maintaining historically low taxes on corporations and the rich.
In January, the President resisted proposals for entitlement cuts, and succeeded in getting the Republicans to agree to repeal Bush-era tax breaks on households making more than $400,000 a year.
Yesterday, in a phone interview with Senator Sanders, I asked whether things are going better than he feared -- and what the outlook is for protecting ordinary Americans' interests in the debt ceiling standoff and the next round of "fiscal cliff" negotiations.
"I'm not big on making predictions," Sanders told me. But failing to raise the debt ceiling "will expose to the world the irresponsibility of Republicans," he said.
"As the President has indicated, on this issue there cannot be any negotiation."
Is there reason to hope that President Obama will stand firm against the whole package of austerity policies the Republicans are pushing?
Having won Round One and forced through higher taxes on the top 1%, is the President in a stronger bargaining position? After all, the worst-case scenario was that Democrats and Republicans were ready to reach a "grand compromise" in January, including both a tax increase on the wealthiest Americans and significant "reform" to New Deal entitlements that could cause a lot of pain for the elderly, the poor, and the sick.
The agreement Obama made "was better than the worst case," Sanders conceded. "But this is an ongoing debate. What I worry about -- and a lot of people worry about -- is the President will end up reaching an agreement where he'll support chained CPI, which would mean significant cuts to Social Security and veterans' programs and also cuts to Medicare and Medicaid."
Obama has reportedly expressed a willingness to consider "chained CPI" -- a downward adjustment in the way the government calculates the consumer price index.
"If you move to chained CPI, it changes the cost of living formula in a way that will mean a $600 a year cut in Social Security benefits by age 75," Sanders points out. "That's a lot for someone who is living on $15,000 a year. It's over $1,000 by the time you're 85."
"As we go forward on deficit reduction, it's got to be the wealthy and corporations who pay their fair share -- not cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid," Sanders added.
A few weeks ago Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell declared, "Revenue is off the table." Having accepted Obama's tax increases on the rich, he and other Republicans announced that all future negotiations over the reducing the deficit must involve spending cuts. And the President, even as he resisted Republican efforts to tie budget cuts to the debt ceiling, has said, "If the issue is deficit reduction ... then Democrats and Republicans in Congress will have a partner in me," and praised "a balanced approach," which would presumably include spending cuts.
Yet "Mitch McConnell is dead wrong," says Sanders. "Revenue is exactly what the problem is."
Revenue is at 16% of GDP, Sanders points out -- "the lowest point in 60 years."
"In the Clinton years, when we were running a surplus, revenue was over 20% of GDP," he says.
Furthermore, "We have corporations today paying 12% of their profits in taxes -- the lowest rate since 1972. And one in four profitable corporations are paying nothing at all."
There is plenty of room to close loopholes, raise taxes, and get new revenue, contrary to what Mitch McConnell says, Sanders asserts. But will President Obama and the Democrats in Congress stick to their guns, or accept the Republicans' terms of debate?
"Here's the good news," says Sanders. "You have groups like AARP, veterans' groups like the American Legion, and the unions fighting back vigorously."
"There is coming together a very strong grassroots movement of millions and millions of people, saying, 'No. Don't balance the budget on the backs of the poor and elderly,'" Sanders says.
In the teeth of this weak economy, "you'd think there would be a massive debate about how do we create the jobs we need," says Sanders. "The rightwing has somehow captured this issue, so that deficit reduction is more important than job creation."
Just the opposite is true.
"They say that we're spending too much," says Sanders. Yet with 14% real unemployment, government spending is what we need to protect people who are out of work, and to make sure millions of Americans don't lose their homes or go hungry.
"We are not going to balance the budget on the backs of the middle class. Groups out there are beginning to work on that and we're going to work with them," says Sanders.
"If you are the President, or any regular, mainstream Democrat, and you see all the senior groups, all the unions, and all the veterans' organizations oppose me -- maybe I better think twice about cutting these programs."
"You just think about it," he adds, "telling someone who lost two legs in Iraq, or a widow of that war, 'You're going to have to take a cut, and all these large corporations get to pay nothing.'"
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Yes we CAN protect our children from gun violence".
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