But senators like Baucus and Conrad increasingly are being drowned out by other Democrats emboldened by the recent election results to fight against benefit cuts.
“I think the election spoke very strongly about the fact that the vast majority of American people don't want to cut these programs,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.
Further complicating the issue, some Democrats say they are willing to look for savings in programs like Medicare and Medicaid, as long as cuts don't lead to higher costs for beneficiaries. Obama's new health care law, for example, assumes more than $700 billion in Medicare savings over the next decade.
“I'm willing to look at ways of making the programs work better,” Harkin said.
Congress and the White House are devoting the next three weeks to finding at least a bridge over the fiscal cliff by reducing the sudden jolt of higher taxes and spending cuts in January while laying a framework for addressing the nation's long-term financial problems next year.
Obama wants to let tax rates rise for wealthy families while sparing middle- and low-income taxpayers. Some Republican leaders, including House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, have said they were willing to consider making the wealthy pay more by reducing their tax breaks. But most Republicans in Congress adamantly oppose raising anyone's tax rates.
Negotiations are going slowly as each side waits for the other to make concessions.
Democrats already have tried to take Social Security off the table. White House press secretary Jay Carney said this week that changes to the massive retirement and disability program should be done separately from any plan to reduce the deficit. That's the same position taken by 28 Democratic senators and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in a letter to fellow senators in September.
“We will oppose including Social Security cuts for future or current beneficiaries in any deficit-reduction package,” said the letter, which was signed by many top Democrats, including Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. In the House, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has taken the same position, not only on Social Security, but also on Medicare and Medicaid.
“There hasn't been the slightest suggestion about what they're going to do about the real problems, and that's entitlements,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee. “There's a certain cockiness that I've seen that is really astounding to me since we're basically in the same position we were before” the election.