Democrats, in the Dark, Dig in Their Heels

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Forgive House Democrats if they’re fuming a bit about the hairpin turn in the debt-limit negotiations. Reports that the White House is willing to consider cuts to entitlement programs as part of a grand bargain that far exceeds prior proposals caught them by surprise. At a briefing with reporters Thursday afternoon, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said that while her caucus wanted to back the President as he probes for a deal that would sidestep a catastrophic default, Democrats would not back cuts to entitlements as part of the pact. “I want to try to contribute to achieving a grand bargain,” Pelosi said. “I want him to have the room to do that and also full cooperation to do that. I also want to have full clarity about where House Democrats stand. We do not support any cuts in benefits to Social Security or Medicare.”

Pelosi said little about the substantive discussions at Thursday’s White House meeting. She echoed Obama’s characterization that the meeting was “constructive,” and reiterated that members and their staff would keep back channels open ahead of Sunday’s negotiating session. But she suggested that the conclave, which included four top lawmakers from each party as well as a cadre of White House aides, didn’t drill down into much detail, allowing only that Democrats were willing to “think big.” Asked whether she would support a sweeping bargain that hacked off some $4 trillion or more in spending — roughly twice the figure that he had been previous floated — Pelosi, rattling off a series of questions, hinted that haggling over figures was premature, as negotiators still needed to define the simple terms of an agreement.

“What is the baseline?” she asked. “Is it January 2011? What is the length of time? Is it 10 years or 12 years? If there is some kind of a cap on discretionary spending, are there firewalls between defense and domestic spending? What is the total amount?” Pelosi said. “I think that’s up to the President to say. But we really do need to have a definition of terms so we know when we’ve met them.” In a statement after the Thursday morning session, Obama acknowledged that the two parties were “still far apart on a wide range of issues.”

By stressing all that has yet to be decided, Pelosi’s implicit suggestion was clear: Democrats have been gobsmacked by fresh pressure to compromise quickly on the kind of titanic, politically fraught pact that is generally negotiated at Washington’s glacial pace. With the U.S. set to scrape up against its debt limit on August 2, lawmakers don’t have that kind of time. While Pelosi said she was heartened by House Speaker John Boehner’s suggestion that the odds of a deal being struck in coming days was “50-50,” Democrats’ reaction to the abrupt change in the scope and substance of the talks suggested that might be optimistic. They remain largely in the dark about what package the White House is seeking.

“All I know is what the President said yesterday,” says Chris Van Hollen, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee. “We have made very clear that we have resisted the idea of balancing the budget on the backs of Social Security recipients.”

Cutting entitlements also blunts the Democrats’ sharpest line of attack against Republicans, which is that the GOP budget would decimate Medicare. One centrist House Democrat angrily pointed out Thursday that the party spent its recent summer recess promising “no surrender on Medicare.”

Asked if he was frustrated with the White House, California Democrat Henry Waxman said he was “concerned,” noting that when Obama sketched the framework of a deficit-reduction bargain during a recent speech, he was relying on Republicans’ willingness to accept revenue increases as part of the package. “If there are no revenues being talked about, I don’t see why we’re going along with the kinds of cuts,” Waxman said.

By laying down a marker, House Democrats are reminding Obama that he can’t take their support for granted as he maps out a path to 218 votes in the lower chamber. For now, they are holding out hope that the consequences the looming default crisis — panicked markets, a renewed recession, frozen credit — will force their intractable opponents to bend. “People say ‘never, never, never,'” says Texas Democrat Henry Cueller, suggesting a deal will ultimately be forged. “One thing I’ve learned about Washington is never say never, because you never know.”

Alex Altman is a Washington Correspondent at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @aaltman82. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.