Sen. Dick Durbin delivered some tough love Tuesday to his fellow progressive Democrats in a speech on the "fiscal cliff."
His message: Be ready to compromise -- or be left out of the conversation while others make decisions about the priorities you care about the most, such as preventing the middle class from carrying an unfair tax burden.
Durbin's speech, at the Center for American Progress -- a progressive think tank -- comes as President Barack Obama and House and Senate GOP and Democratic leaders are confronting a Dec. 31 deadline to avoid a "fiscal cliff" kicking in automatic tax hikes and spending cuts.
Activists on the left and right -- and a host of special interest groups -- are jockeying to protect programs or tax breaks.
Within the progressive community, Democrats see this as a battle between ordinary people and the super rich. They do not want to solve the nation's fiscal woes on the backs of the massive safety net programs -- mainly Medicare and Medicaid.
Obama is adamant about the next step: putting money on the table, by not extending tax breaks set to expire at the end of the year for earners over $250,000.
Durbin invoked the name of two late Illinois Democratic senators -- Paul Douglas and Paul Simon, fiscal realists who proudly wore the liberal label -- in making the case for progressives taking some bitter pills.
"So there is a strain, at least in Illinois progressive politics, of conservatism and fiscal sanity when it comes to spending issues," Durbin said.
Durbin is a key player in the fiscal cliff negotiations. He is the No. 2 leader in the Senate, but more important in this context, he was a member of the Simpson-Bowles Commission and part of the bipartisan Senate "Gang of Eight" wrestling with deficit reduction for some two years.
A quick reminder on Simpson-Bowles: That's the 18-member panel Obama created to figure out future spending, tax and deficit policy. A report by the group on Dec. 3, 2010, failed to win the 14 votes needed for a final endorsement -- though many in fiscal circles thought the pain was spread around.
There were schisms on both sides of the aisle; progressives -- such as Rep. Jan Schakowsky, who was also part of the panel -- were not convinced the social safety net programs were protected.
Two strong progressives split on this one: Durbin voted for, Schakowsky against Simpson-Bowles.
Now, almost two years later, Congress and the White House are at a fiscal brink, with a self-imposed deadline backed by draconian actions no one wants.
"Progressives cannot afford to stand on the sidelines in this fiscal cliff debate and to deny the obvious," Durbin said.
"Important critical decisions will be made soon that will affect this country for 10 years. I think we need to be part of this conversation, which means we need to be open to some topics and some issues that are painful and hard for us to talk about.
"We have to look to reform and change that is significant, that preserves many of the values and programs that brought us to political life, and we cannot believe that merely ignoring these programs or not engaging is going to solve a problem."
Durbin said he was asked by progressive friends why he was bothering to talk taxes and spending with conservative GOP senators who are "up to no good."
Replied Durbin, "being seated at the table, which do you think is a better place to be?"