I love watching millionaire politicians divvy up our safety net, don't you? So does George Stephanopoulos, since he brings it up Every. Single. Chance. He. Gets. The thought of some working class schmoe having a dignified retirement really, really gets to the Villagers, apparently:
Senators, welcome. And, Senator Durbin, let me begin with you. You see those markets going up in anticipation of a deal. Are they right to be optimistic?
DURBIN: Well, they should be optimistic, because we can solve this problem. Unfortunately, for the last 10 days, with the House and Congress gone for the Thanksgiving recess, there hasn't much -- much progress hasn't been made. But tomorrow there's no excuse. We're back in town.
And, George, let me tell you, it gets down to the basics. The House of Representatives has a bipartisan bill passed by the Senate that will spare 98 percent of taxpayers across America from any income tax raises and 97 percent of businesses. It's a bipartisan bill the House should pass to make sure that we go forward with these negotiations without this specter of tax increases for working families.
They also, I might add, have a bipartisan farm bill sent by the Senate that they've been unable to pass and a bipartisan bill for the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization. It's time for the House in the closing days of this session to at least take up those three measures and pass it.
STEPHANOPOULOS: OK, Senator Graham, you've signaled that you're willing to raise revenues as part of an overall deal that also includes spending cuts, and that's drawn the fire of Grover Norquist, you know, the author of that no-tax pledge that's been in place among so many Republicans for 20 years right now. He thinks the best solution is actually not to negotiate a compromise right now, is to go over the cliff. He says the world won't come to an end if this isn't resolved before January. Take the sequester. The only thing worse than sequester cuts is to not cut spending at all. He's saying don't raise taxes, accept those spending cuts.
Grover, of course, using the old Brer Rabbit strategy: "Oh please, please throw us into that sequester patch!"
GRAHAM: Well, what I would say to Grover Norquist is that the sequester destroys the United States military. According to our own secretary of defense, it would be shooting ourselves in the head. You'd have the smallest Army since 1940, the smallest Navy since 1915, the smallest Air Force in the history of the country, so sequestration must be replaced.
I'm willing to generate revenue. It's fair to ask my party to put revenue on the table. We're below historic averages. I will not raise tax rates to do it. I will cap deductions. If you cap deductions around the $30,000, $40,000 range, you can raise $1 trillion in revenue, and the people who lose their deductions are the upper-income Americans.
But to do this, I just don't want to promise the spending cuts. I want entitlement reforms. Republicans always put revenue on the table. Democrats always promise to cut spending. Well, we never cut spending. What I'm looking for is more revenue for entitlement reform before the end of the year...
STEPHANOPOULOS: I want to ask Senator Durbin about that, but let me press you one more time on Grover Norquist, because he's had some tough words for you. In the end, he says, you're not going to go through on this promise to raise revenues, because you, quote, "like being a senator." Your response?
GRAHAM: I love being a senator, and I want to be a senator that matters for the state of South Carolina and the country. When you're $16 trillion in debt, the only pledge we should be making to each other is to avoid becoming Greece, and Republicans -- Republicans should put revenue on the table. We're this far in debt. We don't generate enough revenue. Capping deductions will help generate revenue. Raising tax rates will hurt job creation.
So I agree with Grover, we shouldn't raise rates, but I think Grover is wrong when it comes to we can't cap deductions and buy down debt. What do you do with the money? I want to buy down debt and cut rates to create jobs, but I will violate the pledge, long story short, for the good of the country, only if Democrats will do entitlement reform.
The game's laid out for us. Republicans want to trade teeny, tiny deduction cuts for Big Bold CUTS in the national safety net. Will Obama let them?
STEPHANOPOULOS: Let's talk about that entitlement reform, Senator Durbin, because you see your allies in the Democratic Party are already starting to mobilize with ads from labor unions, the AARP airing across the country right now. I want to show part of it right now.
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(UNKNOWN): How do we move our country forward and reduce the deficit? By creating jobs and growing our economy, not by cutting progress that families rely on most. For working families, it's all about putting Americans back to work, not cutting the things we rely on most.
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STEPHANOPOULOS: They are signaling that they can't accept the kinds of entitlement reforms, especially in Medicare and Social Security, that Senator Graham is saying are prerequisite to a deal.
DURBIN: Let me tell you, first, George -- and you know this -- Social Security does not add one penny to our debt -- not a penny. It's a separate funded operation, and we can do things that I believe we should now, smaller things, played out over the long term that gives it solvency.
Medicare is another story. Only 12 years of solvency lie ahead if we do nothing. So those who say, "Don't touch it, don't change it," are ignoring the obvious. We want Medicare to be there for today's seniors and tomorrow's, as well. We don't want to go the Paul Ryan route of voucherizing it, privatizing it, but we can make meaningful reforms in Medicare and Medicaid without compromising the integrity of the program, making sure that the beneficiaries are not paying the price for it, except perhaps the high-income beneficiaries. That to me is a reasonable approach.
Again, this is not complicated: The minute you start means testing Medicare, you turn it into a poverty program. The reason it's so popular is that everyone gets it.
Let me salute Lindsey Graham. What he just said about revenue and taxes needs to be said on his side of the aisle. We need to be honest on our side of the aisle. And as we did under Bowles-Simpson, put everything on the table.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Does that include raising the age for Medicare eligibility?
DURBIN: Here's my concern about that, George. What happens to the early retiree who needs health insurance before that person's eligible for Medicare? I had it happen in my family, and I'll bet a lot of your viewers did, as well. We've got to make sure that there is seamless coverage of affordable health insurance for every American. My concern about raising that Medicare retirement age is there will be gaps in coverage or coverage that's way too expensive for seniors to purchase.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Is that a fair point, Senator Graham?
GRAHAM: Not really. I don't think you can look at entitlement reform without adjusting the age for retirement, like Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan did. It goes to 66, 67 here pretty soon for Social Security. Let it float up another year or so over the next 30 years, adjust Medicare from 65 to 67 over the next 30 years, means test benefits for people in our income level. I don't expect the Democrats to go for premium support or a voucher plan, but I do expect them to adjust these entitlement programs before they bankrupt the country and run out of money themselves. So age adjustment and means testing for both Social Security, Medicare I think is eminently reasonable. And all those who've looked at this problem have done that over time.
Where to begin? First, it's an outright lie. "Bankrupt the country"? When was the last time you heard Lindsey Graham screaming about our latest wars "bankrupting the country"? It is a question of priorities and political will, not capability. This is just plain immoral. People who do not work for Congress do not get lifetime, Cadillac health care coverage. Former members of Congress do. Most people do not have gyms and squash courts at their workplace, nor do we have staff to take care of the little problems of everyday life. In fact, ordinary working people are dying sooner than ever. I suppose Lindsey's idea of "fairness" is a six-month retirement? You simply can't keep raising the age, and he knows it.
STEPHANOPOULOS: I want to move on to another subject, but, quickly, Senator Durbin, you praised Senator Graham right there because he was open to more revenues. Do you think that capping deductions is the answer? Or will there actually have to be an increase in tax rates for the wealthy?
"Or even (gulp!) people like me, George Stephanopoulos? Do you have any idea how much it costs to put kids through Sidwell Friends?"
DURBIN: No, I think the top rate needs to go up, and that's where I may disagree with my friend, Lindsey Graham. Remember, during the course of the presidential debate, how many times the president turns to Mitt Romney and said, well, do the arithmetic. How in the world are you going to reduce deductions and generate enough revenue for meaningful deficit reduction? He could never answer the question, because there is no reasonable answer to it. Let the rates go up to 39 percent. Let us also take a look at the deductions. Let's make sure that revenue is an integral part of deficit reduction.
And, yes, from my side of the table, bring entitlement reform into the conversation. Social Security, set aside. Doesn't add to the deficit. But when it comes to Medicare and Medicaid, protect the integrity of the program, but give it solvency for more and more years.