Nancy Pelosi and birthday cake

Heated Rhetoric Gets No Vacation in Congress

By NAFTALI BENDAVID, The Wall Street Journal

Congress’s hot August recess has begun with rhetoric to match, with Democrats pummeling Republicans for wanting to trim Social Security, and Republicans hammering Democrats for favoring tax increases.

The warring political strategies might make good theater—one of a series of hot-button issues being debated this off-season—but they could box both sides into intractable positions ahead of a major debate about taxes, spending and the deficit.

A bipartisan deficit commission is set to issue recommendations Dec. 1, and the Bush tax cuts are scheduled to expire at year’s end. Many economists say any strategy for lowering the deficit would likely require some form of tax increases and a cut in benefits under entitlement programs such as Social Security, among other things.

“I just don’t know how we’re going to get to it,” said former Sen. Warren Rudman (R., N.H.), co-chairman of the anti-deficit Concord Coalition. “I have the highest regard for the people on the [deficit] commission, and I know they will come up with a number of solutions. Whether they’ll be politically palatable, I have my doubts.”

Most, if not all, of the panel’s recommendations would have to be approved by Congress to take effect. And a summer of pummeling each other over those issues—and touting themselves as guardians of their respective sacred cows—would only make passage more difficult. President Barack Obama jointed the fray over the weekend, trumpeting a commitment to safeguard Social Security “today, tomorrow and forever.” Republicans are also stepping up rhetoric, calling for unspent stimulus money to be used for, among other things, paying down the deficit. (See related article on page A6.)

Leaders on each side who have violated party orthodoxy have been quickly rebuked. After House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) left the door open to raising the Social Security retirement age, he was sharply criticized by liberal activists.

Sen. Judd Gregg (R., N.H.) has signaled he could live with a 3-to-1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases, only to be repudiated by the Club for Growth, a small-government lobby group. “Our basic response to Sen. Gregg would be that the federal government is not a little too big, it’s a lot too big,” said Mike Connolly, a Club for Growth spokesman.

Republicans are taunting Democrats, saying they are afraid to face voters’ wrath and holding fewer town-hall meetings than they did last August, when protesters disrupted lawmakers’ public sessions about the health-care plan. Democrats deny holding fewer meetings with voters.

Democrats, facing political headwinds, have calculated their best strategy is to argue that they, unlike Republicans, are on the side of ordinary Americans, highlighted by the creation of Social Security under Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

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