Dozens of clergy members will carry a golden calf symbolizing the idols of wealth and greed to Senator Richard Durbin’s office on Thursday, as a coalition of community groups demands that Durbin defend social programs – including Social Security and Medicare – in any post-election budget showdown.
So far Durbin has refused to sign a pledge – backed by Majority Leader Harry Reid and 28 other senators – promising to oppose cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
“Durbin is missing in action on this issue,” said Jacob Swenson of the Make Wall Street Pay  coalition. The Illinois senator is assistant majority leader and the Obama administration’s closest ally in the Senate.
Led by the clerical procession, members of the coalition will march from the Chicago Temple, 77 W. Washington, to Durbin’s office in the Federal Building, 230 S. Dearborn, at 10 a.m. on Thursday, November 8.
On Friday at 3 p.m., hundreds of clergy, students and others will rally at Pritzker Park, Van Buren and State, calling on Durbin to stand tough in budget negotiations.
Following the failure of Durbin’s “Gang of Six”  to reach a budget compromise in the summer of 2011, Congress passed a measure establishing a supercommittee to breach the impasse, with the threat of $1.2 trillion in automatic “sequester” cuts to military and domestic spending if they failed. They failed, and the deadline to act under that measure looms.
Congress could just repeal sequestration and start over, Swenson said. The current impasse revolves around Democrats’ insistence on a mix of tax revenue and budget cuts to address the deficit, while Republicans oppose any tax increases whatsoever.
President Obama has to check his propensity for preemptive compromise and “play hardball,” said Swenson. Specifically, he said, Democrats can win if they are willing to allow the Bush tax cuts – all of them – to expire.
“We’d like to keep them in place for people earning under $250,000, but if you’re not willing to let them expire, you don’t have political leverage,” he said. “The Democrats haven’t taken the strong bargaining position they need to take.”
Durbin: raise retirement age
Obama has backed the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles commission, which Durbin supported , including raising the retirement age to 69 and reducing cost of living adjustments for Social Security; the plan would also lower the tax rate on top incomes.
Swenson said that Durbin defends raising the retirement age because Americans on average are living longer, but he says that that’s true only for wealthier people; for blacks and Latinos, in fact, life expectancy is decreasing.
“When they talk about ‘restructuring’ and ‘strengthening’ Social Security, that’s code for cutting benefits,” he said.
That’s not necessary, he said: the Social Security fund could be bolstered by raising the income limit on payroll deductions. According to Swenson, Durbin has said he supports this in private meetings, but he hasn’t managed to take a position publicly.
Swenson also takes issue with Obama and Durbin’s focus on short-term deficit reduction. “This is not the time to be focusing on the national debt,” he said. “We’re in a depression. Our elected officials don’t seem to recognize what this means for people. We need to do whatever it takes – and borrow whatever it takes – to get the economy going.
“We were willing to go into debt for ten years to pay for two wars and for tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires,” he said. “Why can’t we make sure people in our communities have jobs, have food and medicine, that our children can get a decent education?”
The coalition is calling for blocking sequestration; Swenson says the cuts “would fall on the most vulnerable people – the poor, the sick, seniors and children.” They reject a “Grant Bargain” that balances the budget at the expense of the safety net. They’re calling for a financial transaction tax to raise hundreds of billions of dollars of new revenue.
(For more, see Swenson’s article at Truthout: The Real Story on Dick Durbin’s Leadership .)