Progressive Groups Weigh In on President Obama’s Plans to Prevent Sequestration

President Barack Obama is meeting with conservative and progressive leaders to gather input on how to avoid going over the "fiscal cliff." Jeffrey Brown talks to National Education Association’s Dennis Van Roekel and’s Justin Ruben, progressive leaders who met with President Obama at the White House this week.

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    Since the election, we have sampled different views about what the president and Congress should do facing this so-called fiscal cliff. Those include the CEO of Aetna Insurance, one of several business leaders meeting with the president tomorrow; the leader of a centrist think tank called Third Way; and a panel of three Republicans on how their party should respond to last week's vote.

    As we just heard from Judy, President Obama met with leaders of labor and liberal groups today at the White House.

    We're joined now by two who were there.

    Dennis Van Roekel is the president of the National Education Association. With some three million members, including teachers, it's the largest labor union in the country. And Justin Ruben, executive director of, a political advocacy group.

    Want to start with you, Dennis Van Roekel. What was the key message that you brought to the White House and wanted the president to hear today?

  • DENNIS VAN ROEKEL, National Education Association:

    Well, I brought the message that, number one, it's important that we let the Bush tax cuts disappear for the wealthiest 2 percent.

    As we're looking for a $1.2 trillion solution, $829 billion takes us a long way there. I also brought a message that there are other areas of taxes that we looked at that need to be — look at the fairness issue. President Obama not only won this election, but so did his ideas and his values. The American people want fairness. They want everyone to pay their fair share.

    And one of the things that is very unfair in this country is if you earn your income through work vs. those who earn their income through wealth. If you work as a policeman, a plumber, a teacher, a nurse, you're taxed at a certain rate, but if you earn your income through dividends or capital gains, they tax it as a lesser rate.

    Warren Buffett said, why in the world should his secretary pay — pay less tax? I also brought to them the idea that in corporate tax reform, number one, we have to change the offshore loopholes, which will generate over $530 billion. But what we also have to do is to make sure that the corporations who earn billions of dollars pay some tax, and now they're paying none.


    All right, let me bring in Justin Ruben, because your group issued a statement afterwards agreeing with the president's stance on taxes, but you also said, "Our members are committed to defending Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security from any benefit cuts as part of a budget deal."

    Is — any cuts, is that a line that you draw?

  • JUSTIN RUBEN, Executive Director,

    Well, no, I think there's two things to remember here.

    First, we said benefit cuts. There's no question that we need to — that the growth of Medicare is unsustainable. But there are ways to — we need to bring down the cost of health care in this country. And that's the way to control Medicare costs, not to ask people who are having — who are sick and who need care to go without.

    But I think the second thing is if you step back and look at this fight overall, it's a really a priorities question. We have these budget challenges. And how are we going to solve them?

    And are we going to ask — you know, are we going to ask people who are making millions of dollars a year to pay more, or are we going to ask — I think about my in-laws who are living basically on — they live on Social Security. They have some veterans benefits. They served this country. They're living month to month. Are we going to ask them to literally give up $100 or $200 a month, when the middle class and the poor have already basically taken it on the chin for the last 20 years?

    We don't think that's the way to solve this problem. We don't think we have to.


    The question, Mr. Van Roekel — and I want to pick up on the discussion we were just listening to before — is sort of where are we now? What mandate, if any, did the president get? What should be his stance? Where is there room for negotiation going forward?


    Well, we didn't talk about negotiations at this point.

    It was the first of three meetings, as you mentioned. Tomorrow, it is with business and Friday with members of Congress.

    But what we also talked about is the impact of changes in Medicaid. You know, if the government doesn't cut Medicaid, however shifts the cost to state governments, it's going to have a real impact.

    Medicaid is now the number one expense item for state budgets. It surpassed K-12 education. The third big area is prisons, and they're not going to cut that.

    So, we cannot allow cost shift to the states because we know it will have a devastating impact on education.

    And Medicaid also provides one-third of America's children with the only health care they have. So there are many people to think about.

    I always think that the 535 people in Congress who are going to make this decision, it's not really about them. It's about 360 million Americans that need them to step up to a very tough issue, find a solution that works for all of Americans, not just a few.


    Justin Ruben, what should the stance of the president — what do you want the stance of the president to be coming out of this election, to hold — stick to some guns, to compromise? Where should he be?


    Well, the president was really clear in this election that he was fighting to protect the middle class from more cuts and to do a deal that would basically get the economy moving again.

    And what he said is, he's going to stick to his guns on that. We think that's — our members, who worked really hard, worked their guts out, were knocking on doors and making phone calls to elect the president, that's definitely what they think is needed.

    And they have been fighting for two years to make sure that we ultimately get — that we ask, you know, the wealthiest in this country to pay their fair share and that we take that money and we put it into investments that can get the economy moving again.

    And so I think we're really happy to hear the president basically saying he's going to do that, because that's what the country needs.


    But does stick to your guns mean go over that cliff if necessary, not to — the bad deal is better than no deal kind of — And no deal is better than a bad deal kind of thing?



    I mean, look, I think the president has done something really smart, which is to say we can — there's a part of the so-called cliff that's basically a tax increase on the middle class, on the majority of American people.

    And we can just take that off the table. Right? It's been passed by the Senate. The House can pass it right now. Let's just take that out of the equation. And then we can fight about the rest of it. He said, send that to me. I will sign it right now. And I think that's totally right.

    There's lots of other — there are so many ways to approach these challenges, the revenue that we need and kind of making the country solvent.

    But the only question is, are Republicans going to hold us hostage again? Because if we end up in a situation where on New Year's Eve, the Republicans are saying Donald Trump can't pay one single cent more, and that we're willing to literally let all of these policies kick in and these tax rates rise to protect that, well, then I think there's no question that we have to just basically put enough pressure on the Republicans that ultimately they change their tune, because that — we just can't allow them to hold the country hostage again.


    All right, Justin Ruben of, Dennis Van Roekel of National Education Association, thank you both very much.


    Thanks a lot.


    Thank you.