Progressive activists are telling the White House and congressional Democrats that they would prefer no fiscal-cliff deal to one that sacrificed any benefits for Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid. Coupled with warnings that liberals would support primary challenges to Democrats who embrace such cuts, this further complicates the hunt for a compromise before the end of the year.

In the view of many of the activists who are monitoring the talks, the progressive agenda is advanced by inaction that lets the Bush tax cuts lapse because they believe the new Congress would undo the worst of the spending cuts in January. That view, though, worries the champions of education and student-loan programs that would take a big hit from the sequester.