What’s on the chopping block?

The great sequestration guessing game: What will Democrats surrender?

The fiscal cliff negotiations belong to the Dark Ages, the inaugural address has come and gone, the State of the Union speech is in pundit pre-dissection mode, and the media have a new focus—guessing winners and losers in the sequestration deal, if there ever is one. The Beltway is abuzz with speculation and reporters predictably passing along the guess du jour.

Speculation is the right word, since movers and shakers like Harry Reid, Eric Cantor, and John Boehner aren’t about to spill the beans and allow the press to write a real “adult”—to quote a piece of overused Beltway lingo, as in Congress should act like adults—story about where the budget ax is likely to fall. But reporters are trying.

Greg Sargent, the Washington Post blogger, shows how to report out the speculation while dropping hints about Beltway thinking, at least for those who want to build on tidbits. His bottom line: even liberal Dems, like Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, are open to spending cuts—maybe even to Medicare. In a post at the end of last week, Sargent opened by referring to a New York Times piece that talked of dire sequestration cuts to defense, furloughs to FAA workers, 70,000 children dropped from Head Start, etc, etc., and of efforts to present an alternative.

Sargent talked to one of his sources, a Senate aide, to “add a bit more,” he told readers, reporting that Senate Democrats will not just propose new revenues, but also specific spending cuts. “Democrats plan to bring a balanced plan that includes revenue and cuts to the table to avoid sequestration,” the aide to Senate leadership told him. Sargent then told WaPo readers he could not “determine how much in cuts is being discussed, or where they would come from, but the aide noted that Dems have offered spending cuts in every fiscal negotiation.” That does sound like something is on the chopping block. But what?

Sargent tried to find out by snagging an interview with Sherrod Brown, the Ohio Senator and a card-carrying liberal, and the next day he passed along Brown’s cryptic message: the Dems are “closing in on a strategy to offer Republicans a plan to avert sequester with a roughly 50-50 mix of new revenues and spending cuts,” as a strategy to pressure Republicans to stop their so-far firm opposition to new revenues.

Now came the confusing part. Brown revealed that Reid had assured Democrats there would be no cuts to entitlement benefits in their offer, and that some cuts may be made in spending for farm subsidies and defense and “perhaps” Medicare, but only for docs and hospitals. Brown told Sargent the final package would not cut into entitlement benefits. “It will be cost cutting, not benefit cuts,” Brown said. Hmmm. Does that mean there would be no changes to Medicare or Social Security of the sort that have been floating around for months, such as raising the eligibility age to collect benefits or making people with higher incomes pay more?

Sargent didn’t drill down for specifics, but I kind of wish he had, given a couple of things: First, a few days before his blog posts appeared, Politico’s David Nather had laid out three possible changes for Social Security and three for Medicare, in a piece titled “The quiet liberal plans for entitlement reform.”

As long as we are speculating, it would be nice for somebody to push further on which alternatives are most likely. And then on how those choices would affect Americans. Still, in the end, one needs to parse speculation-speak very carefully.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman. Tags: , , , , ,