'Cliff' talks: Could 'grand bargain' hurt Oregonians?

PORTLAND, Ore. - Oregon's members of Congress are each taking different routes to address the federal budget deficit -- but some who could be hit or hurt the hardest by cuts in programs for the poor, sick and elderly aren't waiting for the deal to be hammered out before weighing in.

On Wednesday, advocates for people who depend on the so-called "Big Three" - Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid - converge on Capitol Hill in Washington.

They're asking lawmakers, as they negotiate deficit reduction deals, not to cut funding for the programs that 1.8 million Oregonians depend on for retirement or disability income and health care.

One recipient is Steve Weiss, a Portlander who thinks the end-of-year "fiscal cliff" drama is unnecessary. He wishes Congress would pass President Obama's proposal to keep the Bush-era tax cuts for the middle class, and work on the rest in January.

"We're going to see what the President is made of, because he's got to make some decisions here.," Weiss said. 

"I'd say the Democrats have a mandate in Congress to do the right thing and take the high road, and do what's fair and equitable -- and, I might add, compassionate," he said.

Weiss added that people aren't getting rich from what are often called "entitlement" programs. In Oregon, the average Social Security benefit is about $13,000 a year. It's $8,300 for Medicare, and $6,500 for Medicaid.

For Michael Bailey's daughter, Eleanor, federal assistance makes it possible to work and live independently.

Bailey, who lives in Oregon and heads the National Disability Rights Network, says Oregon's system is among the best in the nation for linking people with disabilities to the help they need, but the programs are already under-funded.

"Like any issue, this one can be twisted and distorted," Bailey said. "However, if one cares about facts, the fact is that Medicaid is what keeps people out of nursing homes and out of emergency rooms."

Lawmakers who favor across-the-board spending cuts have said church and charitable groups could step up where federal dollars are reduced. But Bailey says programs such as Medicaid work well because they are administered fairly and predictably.

"The beautiful thing about Medicaid is, it's very clear what you get and what it can be used for, and it's not hit-and-miss.," he said. "his is people's lives, and you're not going to fill that gap -- for the millions of people that depend on it -- with charity."

Much of the debate centers around whether wealthy Americans and corporations should have to pay higher taxes, and the effects that major budget cuts would have on a still-fragile economy.

Chris Thomas of Oregon News Service prepared this report.

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