Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL)

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), who has almost become the liaison to the left for cuts to federal health care programs in the grand bargain, gave a speech today at the Center for American Progress that included a couple important points:

• Durbin sequenced the provisions of the deal, saying that Republicans would have to build the framework on taxes, which includes an increase in the top marginal rates, before any Democrat will even begin to talk about social insurance programs. This seems like a hardline stance, but it just mirrors the dominant conversation, which has focused on taxes to the exclusion of practically everything else.

• Though Durbin has sought to bring rank-and-file Democrats along on a grand bargain that would include cuts to those social insurance programs, he set out some red lines. In addition to rejecting the privatization of Medicare or Social Security and the block granting of Medicaid – a common tactic to reject the extreme view to provide space for more modest but still damaging cuts – Durbin took Social Security almost entirely off the table. This matches White House Press Secretary Jay Carney’s statements yesterday. It does appear that’s been filed away for the time being.

In addition, Durbin said, regarding spending cuts on anti-poverty social programs, “Let me be clear: Those cuts will not happen.” And he sought to line up with the Administration’s viewpoint that any changes to Medicare and Medicaid can happen without cuts to benefits, through payment reforms or provider cuts. This would “strengthen” those programs through the reform, he said. He also wanted to exempt infrastructure spending fully from any cuts.

• In fact, Durbin said that any long-term deal would have to include short-term stimulus:

“We can’t just cut our way out of this deficit or tax our way out. We have to think our way out. We have to invest and work our way out,” he said.

Infrastructure is seen as a prime candidate for that stimulus, and the recent devastation to the East Coast could provide a window for that.

• Critically, Durbin also said that any deal would have to include a solution for extending the debt limit:

“I think honestly it’s going to be closer to $4 trillion when it’s all said and done, and I also think that the President isn’t going to sign off on any agreement that doesn’t include some certainty as to budgets, appropriations, dealing with our debt ceiling,” Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) said after a policy speech at the liberal Center for American Progress. “We’re not going to find ourselves at some big party celebrating in February and then turn around in March and have another doomsday scenario with the debt ceiling. We’ve got to get this done as one big package.”

House Speaker John Boehner indicated that resolving the debt limit would come at a price, so Durbin made a kind of response to that.

Overall, Durbin tried to put a happy face on a grand bargain deal expressly to encourage the Professional Left in DC. Many of them came out of a meeting at the White House encouraged by the Democratic line as well. I think there’s a serious case of “trust but verify” needed here. And it should be noted that this is where the party is at before one minute of negotiation with the other side.

…more from Ryan Grim.

UPDATE: Dave Weigel points out that Durbin actually called for a new commission on Social Security, which is usually a way for politicians to punt on the issue, by creating a new blue-ribbon panel.

David Dayen

David Dayen