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Will Progressive Democrats in Congress Defend Social Security?

Donna Smith: Social Security benefits are under attack and concern is whether the "man in the White House" will fight back

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. And today on Capitol Hill, members and supporters of the Progressive Democrats of America came to Congress to lobby. One of those people was Donna Smith. She’s a community organizer for the California Nurses Association. Thanks for joining us, Donna.

DONNA SMITH, COMMUNITY ORGANIZER, CALIF. NURSES ASSOC.: Thank you, Paul. It’s good to be here.

JAY: So, Donna, talk about what you were trying to achieve today on the Capitol Hill.

SMITH: Well, we’re trying to achieve letting congressional members, especially those in the Congressional Progressive Caucus know how critical it is to protect and strengthen those social safety nets that have stood in such good stead in this nation for working people for decades. Social Security and Medicare, we understand, are going to be under attack from the deficit commission and this ill-advised effort to try and balance the federal budget on the backs of programs that aren’t the problem with the federal deficit. So we’re here to let them know loudly and clearly with a large coalition of people that that’s not the way to balance the budget, it’s not the way to cut the deficit. In fact, it’ll hurt so many people and hurt the economy that we have to stand strong. And our progressive congressional members are the ones who can do that for us.

JAY: And what are you hearing back from them today? Because when it came to the health-care debate, many members of the Progressive Caucus said they would never vote for health-care reform without a public option, and then, of course, most of them wound up doing exactly that. They still have control over this House and this lame-duck session. Are they going to take advantage of it?

SMITH: Boy, that’s a great question, Paul, and we hope they take advantage of it, but realistically, the time is short, and the backbone factor has not been very strong in this Congress–or in this Progressive Caucus, either. One of the things that I heard from some members quite clearly and quite directly was that their concern rests not so much with their fellow progressives but with the man in the White House, and they’re concerned about his ability to really stand firm for Social Security, stand firm for Medicare, and stand firm for the things that matter to working Americans. And this was a surprise to me after this election. I think the tone has changed from some of these congressional members, really needing President Barack Obama to stand with them and protect working Americans, and not just look out for the efforts on the behalf of Wall Street, on behalf of American business, but on behalf of the people who’ve been hurting so badly through this recession and will hurt much more deeply if we don’t protect the programs that are keeping them above water.

JAY: Well, there’s two big pieces of narrative that the White House seems to have bought into. One is that debt seems to be a bigger threat than depression. And the other is, the solution is to be found in bipartisanship. What are you hearing from these progressive members? Are they going to fight on these two issues?

SMITH: I’m certainly hearing that from the progressive members. Certainly, we just had a really great session with Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, standing–she is standing very firm on the issue of Social Security and what it means to Americans. She talks about the average Social Security recipient receiving $18,000 a year. That’s a pittance compared to what many of these people, even many of the people in this town make, and they know how difficult it must be for folks to survive on that money in today’s world. And so I hear from her, from Representative Schakowsky, and I hear from many of the progressive members, they are going to stand very firm. But they’re also going to need a president that stands with them. And our expectation is, as Democrats, our expectation as Americans, is that they will find that president standing with the American people and being as concerned about what kind of ripple through the economy happens when you cut programs of social uplift, programs where people are spending those dollars, spending those resources out in those communities, and making this economy at least have some stability.

JAY: Now that the Democrats have lost–or very soon, within a couple of months, will have lost control of the House, what kind of power will the progressive Democrats have? I mean, one of the things they said they wanted to do in the past is they would play some brinksmanship. But as I said on health care, after saying they would, they didn’t. Now what political clout are they going to have after January?

SMITH: I think that’s up to them. You know, realistically, if we look at a House that’s under Republican control, it may stay that way for a little while. They’re going to have a difficult row to hoe. But what’s interesting to me is, if you take a look at some of the Democrats who were lost in this last election, we lost some of the Blue Dog Democrats and some of the people who were more moderate and maybe a little bit more conservative, and a lot of the progressive Democrats held their ground. They had tough fights, but they managed to survive through this election. The message of this election, I don’t think, was so much an anti-democratic message as it was people hurting and suffering in this economy but want Washington to hear that suffering and to react appropriately. The Democrats will determine their own destiny by how strong they stand now, and what kind of work they do on behalf of the people in this country, and making sure we don’t hurt any more.

JAY: Do you get a sense–I mean, the big issue’s going to be the extension of the Bush tax cuts for people earning over $250,000. There’s certainly noise coming out of the White House that there’s going to be some compromise that allows that extension for the wealthy. Is the Progressive Caucus going to get into a public battle with Obama if they think it’s necessary? Or are they going to wind up falling into line again?

SMITH: Well, that certainly hasn’t been their pattern, has it? They certainly have fallen into line on so many issues. You know, I think you can forgive Americans for being a little distrusting of many congressional members who acted like there was some line in the sand and then jumped right over it when push came to shove. So I think the reality is they’re going to have to take a stand on behalf of Americans, and working Americans in particular, and people who are benefiting from social programs, and say that they’re not going to compromise. The issue of the tax relief for the richest Americans, my gosh, in the last week we’ve heard all the statistics about those of us who are of more average income over the last two decades have made little progress in terms of our real buying power and our real forward motion, when in fact those people in the upper income brackets have made huge profits and huge advances in their status and their living ability. That’s not right. That’s not what America’s supposed to be about. You know, I don’t care whether you’re Tea Party, progressive, Democrat, Republican, independent; most of us were raised with this idea that if you work hard and you’re decent and you’re honest and you care about your country, you’re going to at least be able to support your children and have a decent life; and that’s not happening. And whatever has to happen to make that go forward the Democrats are going to have to own as the party that traditionally stood for working Americans, and they’re going to have to move forward that way.

JAY: Well, we shall see. It’s certainly not looking that way. Thanks very much for joining us, Donna.

SMITH: Thank you, Paul, very much.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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