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Congressman Becerra, a Social Security Defender, Deals for Debt Reduction

The lone Latino on the joint congressional ‘supercommittee’ talks about the challenges ahead

Rep. Xavier Becerra, Becerra smiling

Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., addresses the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute in Washington in 2010. — Charles Dharapak/AP

En español | Last year, Rep. Xavier Becerra stepped into the national spotlight as one of Congress’s most impassioned defenders of the Social Security program. Appointed to serve on President Obama’s debt commission, he ended up voting against the panel’s final report, which included cuts in Social Security. Cutting Social Security benefits, he explained, would betray Americans like his father, a construction worker who never earned more than $22,000 a year.

See also: Tell Washington not to cut Social Security, Medicare.

Now the California Democrat is one of 12 members of the congressional “supercommittee” charged with the difficult assignment of reducing the national debt. There’s a lot at stake: The committee must hit a $1.5 trillion target to avoid automatic and substantial cuts in many government programs (Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid would be exempted). That leaves the members of the supercommittee — six Democrats and six Republicans — under intensive pressure to reach agreement, something the Simpson-Bowles commission on which he previously served was unable to do.

Becerra is all but certain to be one of Social Security’s top defenders on the supercommittee, and his positions on the program are well known.

“Social Security has never contributed a dime to the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt — not one penny to our federal budget deficit this year or any year in our nation’s history,” he said last year at a hearing of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security.

Medicare may also be targeted for cuts. Most Republicans support a plan that would encourage Medicare beneficiaries to enroll in private health insurance plans, an idea Becerra opposes.

Becerra is the only Latino on the panel and represents a primarily Hispanic district in Los Angeles. He’s vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus. He spoke with AARP about his work as a supercommittee member.

What are your goals in serving on this panel?

My personal goals are to try to reach an agreement that not only fulfills our obligations, which require us to identify up to $1.5 trillion in savings, but also puts us on track to a solution that will restore confidence in markets. I hope we can prove to the American people that we can do this job well, and, above all, put the country back on the road to prosperity — put the country back to work.

A post on this panel is a high-profile assignment, but also a political risk. Why did you accept the job?

This is precisely why you choose to run for office and get elected. You're asking the people to let you be their voice. I don’t think there is a more powerful and intense experience than the opportunity to be the voice of the 307 million people living in this country.

For you, is anything off the table?

Each one of us who serves on this committee must enter the negotiations sincerely committed to the principle that everything is at stake. Because the moment I say, “I will protect this sacred cow,” or “I agree with a special interest,” that’s when I give each and every one of my colleagues the right and permission to do the same.

Some government programs, including Social Security, are essential for Hispanics and other minorities. Some of these social assistance programs will suffer cuts. Are you going to fight these cuts?

The good news in the makeup of this panel is that we are no longer youngsters. So I think we have a group of 12 people who understand well all the elements of good negotiation. I think you will find 12 people seeking the best solution, but it will not be a solution where any one of us can say, “I got everything that I wanted."

Will the committee be able to meet the deadline?

If we do not complete our task by Nov. 23, by law we enter into another phase. There is no weapon more powerful over us than the statute. We have a deadline.

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