Controversy has broken out because one progressive group dared to call out the House Democratic Leader on a dangerous tactical game she has been playing for the last several months.

The story goes like this: Republicans have habitually bashed President Obama for not backing the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction plan in a formal recommendation to Congress. Republicans don’t care about the deficit, but in this way they can criticize the President on this issue that they pretend to care about. The truth is that Republicans could never accept the Bowles-Simpson plan, because it raises taxes by $2 trillion. In fact, when it came up in the House for a vote, it got thrashed by both parties, gaining only a handful of votes. But Nancy Pelosi saw an opportunity to wedge the Republicans on this and make them look unreasonable. So she has been loudly pronouncing to anyone who will listen over the past couple months that she would have voted for Bowles-Simpson herself, which I guess she feels makes her look more reasonable to the Washington establishment. Only problem: Bowles-Simpson also includes a range of cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.  And by playing footsie with it, Pelosi makes it easier for Democrats to go along.

So Progressives United, led by former Senator Russ Feingold, decided to call Pelosi on it. In a letter to supporters, Feingold asked whether Pelosi actually supported cuts to those vital safety net programs:

Recently, Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has signaled a disturbing potential willingness to adopt a plan that could slash these benefits. And it follows a pattern: Too many House Democrats, including Steny Hoyer, are already on board.

Cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security benefits are unacceptable, and they shouldn’t be put on the table by Democrats for any reason — including cynical, political ones. Leader Pelosi must stand up for these crucial programs.

Tell Leader Pelosi to stand strong against any benefit cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security now, before this talk goes any further.

Basically, Progressives United – and other groups like CREDO joined them – blew the whistle on this cute game Pelosi was playing. And she pushed back on Twitter, but only by saying she would always “support” those programs. She did not explicitly rule out benefit cuts.

Now Pelosi has unleashed the Congressional Progressive Caucus on Feingold (I don’t have confirmation that Pelosi put these members of Congress up to this, but you’d have to be blind not to see that as the course of events):

Leading members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus are coming to the defense of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California after former Sen. Russ Feingold challenged her commitment to protecting Social Security and Medicare.

“Let’s remember that we are on the same team,” reads a letter being circulated by progressive House Democrats. “We need to focus our efforts on the true targets, which are the 228 House Republicans who voted to end the Medicare guarantee, reduce benefits and increase costs for seniors.”

The letter has so far been signed by Reps. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the progressive caucus co-chairmen, as well as Reps. Jan. Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), who sit on the progressive caucus committee that deals with aging issues.

The House liberals told Feingold, a Wisconsin progressive, that “we are concerned by the email sent by your organization on May 3, 2012, which raises questions about House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi’s commitment to Social Security and Medicare. The email states that she indicated ‘a disturbing potential willingness to adopt a plan that could slash these benefits.’ This statement unfairly characterizes Leader Pelosi’s record and position on Social Security and Medicare.”

I don’t see how it unfairly characterizes Pelosi’s record. It asks whether she has the same record, actually. Pelosi has said in public that she would have voted for Bowles-Simpson. Maybe that’s part of a tactical game with Republicans, maybe not. The point is that Bowles-Simpson includes cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, which is at odds with the record these House Democrats point to. All Progressives United wanted to know was whether she supported cuts to those programs, as evidenced by executive director of Progressives United Cole Leystra’s response to the House progressives’ letter: “The question remains — does Leader Pelosi support benefit cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security?” We still don’t know.

This was a really good move by Progressives United. It may have made the DC establishment angry. But it made the point that all this cute game-playing with Bowles-Simpson is going to get the important programs of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security in a lot of trouble. If – and the question is definitely if – those programs survive the lame duck session and whatever comes out of it, people will huff that Progressives United merely overreacted, and that Pelosi was not to be questioned. But it will have been their early whistleblowing that made a difference, putting space between the more liberal wing of the party and a disastrous set of policies.