WASHINGTON – When President Joe Biden suggested that Republicans want to slash Medicare and Social Security, the GOP howls of protest during his State of the Union address showcased a striking apparent turnaround for the party that built a brand for years trying to do just that.
Biden is not about to let Republicans off easily and forget that history.
The record ranges from President George W. Bush's ideas about privatizing Social Security to House Speaker Paul Ryan’s sweeping Medicare overhaul plan to current Sen. Rick Scott’s idea of allowing those and other federal programs to “sunset."
As budget negotiations move ahead, expect the long history of GOP efforts to slash the popular entitlement programs for seniors to remain a politically powerful weapon the White House intends to wield.
“They sure didn’t like me calling them on it,” Biden said Wednesday about his address that drew heckling from Republicans the night before.
He headed to political battleground Wisconsin, home of Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, who has proposed forcing Congress to authorize spending for Social Security every year.
Speaking at a union training facility in DeForest, Biden pulled out a copy of Scott’s campaign proposals and quoted Johnson as well as Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah to warn that Republicans would target Social Security and Medicare.
Referring to the loud GOP objections at the State of the Union, he said, “When I called them out on it last night, it sounded like they agreed to take these cuts off the table.”
“Well, I sure hope that’s true,” he said. “I’ll believe it when I see it."
The political shift among Republicans is happening in real time, helping set the parameters for the budget negotiations as Biden and Congress try to come up with a plan for raising the nation’s debt limit by a summer deadline.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has insisted that cuts to Medicare and Social Security are “off the table” — and many House and Senate Republicans vehemently agreed during Biden’s State of the Union address, some shouting “liar!” as he suggested they were proposing reductions.
But it's unclear what Republicans will demand instead of entitlement cuts as they leverage the upcoming negotiations to extract federal spending reductions. They say they want to put the government on a path toward a balanced budget, but that’s a daunting if not impossible challenge without painful cuts elsewhere — in defense or other domestic accounts that Washington has been unable to make.
Johnson accused the president of “lying” about the senator's approach. “I want to save these programs,” Johnson said in a statement Wednesday. "We need a process to prioritize spending and decease our deficits.”
The White House has insisted that Republicans make their budget plans public for Americans to judge for themselves. That hasn't happened yet.
"No more saying one thing and doing another,” said White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. “Let’s see exactly what they want to do.”
Efforts to halt the explosive growth of the federal safety net programs for older Americans have stirred and stalled for years, particularly as the nation's population ages and more and more money is needed to shore up Medicare and Social Security.
Mandatory spending on the programs accounted for about $2.1 trillion in fiscal 2022, which ended last June 30 — a sizable chunk of the nation's $5.8 trillion federal budget. Both funds are on track for insolvency, and the nation's debt is climbing, already edging past the $31 trillion limit.
In 2005, then President Bush floated a proposal to partially privatize Social Security, the retirement income program mostly for seniors. Republicans in 2010 seized control of the House and elevated House Budget Chairman Ryan, the architect of a Medicare proposal to shift toward a private insurance option, to be the party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee. More recently, Scott, leader of the Senate GOP’s campaign arm, put forward his own plans for overhauling the entitlement systems for older Americans.
Biden quickly zeroed in on Scott’s proposal when the senator first introduced it more than a year ago, using it to portray Republicans as extreme. White House officials credit that with helping Democrats hold onto the Senate in last fall's midterm elections. It’s a game-plan the president appears to be eager to deploy again as he gears up for a 2024 reelection bid.
“Politically it was genius to tag the party with this idea that this party wants to do away with Social Security,” said William Arnone, chief executive of the National Academy of Social Insurance, an advocacy organization for Social Security. “The reaction from Republicans in the room is they want nothing to do with that idea.”
Scott’s 12-point plan calls for all federal spending legislation to sunset in five years, subject to votes in Congress that could preserve programs.
“If a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again,” Scott’s Rescue America website states.
Scott said in a written response to the president's State of the Union address that for Biden “to suggest that this means I want to cut Social Security or Medicare is a lie, and is a dishonest move.”
“Does he think I also intend to get rid of the U.S. Navy? Or the border patrol? Or air traffic control, maybe?” Scott asked in the statement. “This is the kind of fake, gotcha BS that people hate about Washington. I’ve never advocated cutting Social Security or Medicare and never would.”
Scott's sunset ideas have a following among some Republicans in Congress, but at the same time the Republican Party is moving toward what appears to be a public unwillingness to touch the entitlement programs.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has distanced the party from Scott’s ideas, and the Florida Republican lost an internal party bid to oust McConnell from leadership after the 2022 midterm elections.
Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the party's 2012 presidential nominee who chose Ryan as his running mate is proposing a bipartisan “Trust Act,” which would create a “Rescue Commission” for the nation's endangered trust funds with a mandate to come up with legislation that would extend their long-term solvency.
Romney's plan, which is gaining traction among both Republicans and Democrats, is reminiscent of the 2010 bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, otherwise known as the Bowles-Simpson commission. Headed by two former Democratic and Republican lawmakers. it proposed one of the most sweeping overhauls yet of the nation's entitlement and budget programs.
Those recommendations proved politically toxic, and the Obama administration quickly distanced itself, as did many members of Congress.
During the last debt ceiling go-around, in 2011, Biden, as Obama's vice president, helped broker deals to ease the standoff. Among the ideas? A bipartisan “Super Committee” to propose budget cuts.
It, too, was unable to have political staying power, and the cuts were never fully put in place.