WASHINGTON — House Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn has emerged as the defender of the poor and elderly on the deficit-reduction panel weighing deep spending cuts against a ticking clock, balking at a plan by other Democrats on the "supercommittee" because, he says, it trims Medicare too much.
The Democratic plan, crafted by Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, would lower the federal deficit by $4 trillion by combining spending cuts with increased government revenues — much more than the $1.2 trillion cut required by the early August law that raised the debt ceiling and set up the panel.
But even though Clyburn, the highest-ranking African-American in Congress, supports a mix of new revenue and spending cuts, he can't support the Baucus plan because it would reduce benefits to Medicare recipients by $200 billion over a decade.
"Certainly I've said everything ought to be on the table," Clyburn, from South Carolina, told McClatchy. "But I'm not going to say that the entire budget ought to be balanced on the backs of people who do receive Medicare while extremely wealthy people don't pay their share of taxes."
Baucus and his aides declined to comment on Clyburn's statements.
Roger Hickey, co-director of Campaign for America's Future, a liberal advocacy group in Washington, lauded Clyburn for resisting the Medicare reductions.
"We are pleased to praise Rep. Clyburn for refusing to go along with his Democratic colleagues," Hickey said.
"The wealthy have had their incomes rise and their tax rates decline," he said. "It's not shared sacrifice to balance taxes on millionaires with cuts to Medicare or Social Security or other programs that protect people who need help."
Clyburn said he's protecting not only the poor, but also the growing number of Americans at risk of sliding out of the middle class as the economy makes a fitful recovery from the Great Recession that began in December 2007.
In hearing after hearing, Clyburn has criticized a growing wealth gap in the United States.
The nine-term lawmaker has cited data from the Congressional Budget Office, the U.S. Census and other agencies showing that the wealth of the richest 1 percent of Americans has almost tripled over the last generation, while the poorest 20 percent has seen an increase of just 18 percent and the middle 60 percent has experienced a rise of 40 percent.
"It is just plain wrong to put all the burden of debt and deficit reduction on the elderly, the middle class and the poor," Clyburn said at a Sept. 8 session of the panel. "Recent studies indicate that there is a growing wealth gap in this country that is squeezing the middle class and pushing millions into poverty."
He added in his interview with McClatchy: "Anybody can balance the budget by getting rid of Medicare and Medicaid. But does that make sense?"
A record 49.1 million Americans live below the federal poverty level, which the Department of Health and Human Services sets at an annual household income of $22,350 for a family of four.
More than a quarter of the residents of Clyburn's 6th Congressional District, which includes parts of South Carolina's capital, Columbia, live below the poverty level. More than 85,000 constituents receive Medicare benefits.
Where Clyburn sees a widening wealth gap, Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, looks at the same numbers and sees "the failed tax-and-spend policies" of President Barack Obama, Clyburn and other Democratic congressional leaders, starting with the 2009 economic-stimulus package and the 2010 health insurance law.
"We've tried Clyburn's big-government spending experiment for the last three years, and the results are record numbers of Americans unemployed, on food stamps and in poverty," DeMint said. "We need to break the cycle of dependency on government programs and empower Americans to stand on their own with a job in a vibrant economy."
The 2011 Budget Control Act created the supercommittee — with six Democrats and six Republicans from the House and Senate — and charged it with recommending cuts to reduce the deficit by $1.5 trillion over a decade.
The law gives the panel until Nov. 23 to make its recommendations and sets a Dec. 23 deadline for Congress to approve them by an up-or-down vote, with no amendments or Senate filibusters allowed.
If either the supercommittee or Congress fails to meet their deadlines, the law triggers $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts to be split equally between defense and non-defense discretionary programs.
Some Republican aides on Capitol Hill say Clyburn and perhaps one or two of the other House Democrats on the panel — Reps. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Xavier Becerra of California — secretly want the supercommittee to fail to reach an accord, so that half the automatic cuts the law requires would fall on defense programs while Medicare and Social Security would remain exempt.
Clyburn, however, scoffed at the notion, noting that almost 90 percent of the civilian workers at Fort Jackson in Columbia and Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, S.C., live in Clyburn's congressional district.
"So I'm very concerned about those (potential automatic defense) cuts," Clyburn said. "If the hatchet were to fall on those budgets, we already know there would be 10 percent coming out of defense and another 7 to 8 percent coming out of domestic programs including money for Pell grants, Head Start and other kinds of programs I would not like to see cut."
Clyburn is pushing for a mix of targeted "smart cuts" and increased revenues mainly through closing tax loopholes. He also has promoted a consumption tax similar to the value-added taxes applied in much of Europe, though he wants to exempt purchases for education, health, food and other essential needs.
Asked whether he was optimistic the panel would find a successful formula, Clyburn described himself as "not confident, but hopeful."
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