The back-and-forth surrounding Social Security and Medicare this week shows that the entitlement programs remain the unquestioned third rails of American politics as Republicans back away from their decades of calls to slash the popular senior benefits.
Democrats have used Social Security and Medicare to bludgeon the GOP all week, putting Republicans on defense, especially as the White House continues to stoke the fire with Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) over his call to sunset all federal programs after five years. To most Republicans, the political impact of the two preeminent items is clear, and they’re taking long strides to distance themselves from Scott’s proposal.
“It’s essential. I mean, I live in an elderly state that…hits more people,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), a member of Senate GOP leadership, told The Hill. “In tight times like this…that it might actually be under duress or question is a terrible, not just practical, but political [issue] as well.”
“I think they’ve made it clear, and I’ve made it clear, we’re not going to touch it,” Capito added.
Such vows mark a sharp reversal for a Republican Party that has attacked Social Security and Medicare for decades as socialist initiatives that undermine American free enterprise. The most recent examples of that formal position were the GOP budgets proposed under former Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who had made steep cuts to the entitlement programs a central tenet of his years-long effort to reduce federal spending.
A number of Republican lawmakers said this week that there’s a simple reason for the shift in position: a changing of the guard in the GOP’s ranks.
“There’s different people involved,” said freshman Rep. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.). “I’ve said many times, I’m not supporting cuts to those programs. I believe, in fact, they need to be fully funded. And I think that’s the overwhelming opinion of the conference.”
Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over Social Security and Medicare, echoed that message. Asked what had changed since the days when Republicans opposed the entitlements, he attributed it to a personnel change.
“Maybe the leadership, because you’ve never heard me say it,” Smith said. “You should look at my history.”
Part of that shift is attributable to former President Trump, who made clear early on in his 2016 White House bid that he had no intention of taking on the entitlement programs.
“I was the first & only potential GOP candidate to state there will be no cuts to Social Security, Medicare & Medicaid,” Trump boasted on Twitter in May of 2015.
Republicans on Capitol Hill did not immediately adopt that position, even after Trump took over the White House in 2017. But six years later, GOP leaders have embraced those programs — at least rhetorically — and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has vowed that they’ll remain “off the table” as he battles with President Biden over raising the federal debt ceiling.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) went multiple steps further than McCarthy, shouting during the State of the Union that Biden was a “liar” for suggesting the GOP wanted to cut the programs.
The political power of Social Security, in particular, has been put to the test with the White House’s elongated public spat with Scott.
The Florida senator this week has reiterated his support on numerous occasions for the “sunset” plank of his 12-point agenda, going so far as to unearth a bill Biden introduced in 1975 that would sunset federal programs between four and six years after passage and was similar to the senator’s. Scott also challenged the president to a debate while he traveled to Florida on Thursday.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), accompanied by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), discusses the debt ceiling at a press conference in the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, January 25th, 2023.
The White House, unsurprisingly, has leaned into the shouting match with Scott. While appearing in Tampa, Florida, Biden panned the senator’s proposal as “outrageous,” while the White House labeled Scott as the “national poster-child” for GOP attacks on Social Security and Medicare. If Biden’s messaging on Thursday wasn’t clear enough, the backdrop at his event read, “Protect and Strengthen Medicare.”
Scott’s proposals, however, have pushed Republicans away from the topic. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made clear last year the party writ large did not support a sunset on federal programs despite the GOP’s rhetoric on the topic at times during the 2010s, especially from Ryan.
“Everybody knows it’s the third rail. It’ll kill you if you touch it,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said Thursday. “I think part of it is that when you have divided government, unless the Biden administration’s willing to engage on this, there’s no real point. People are willing to do things that require some political courage if they think they’re going to get a result. But if you’re just going to be hanging yourself out there and twisting in the wind while your opponent is taking a lot of joy and advantage of that, then there’s no real point in doing it.”
Since the State of the Union blow-up, Republicans have been upset by Biden’s accusation from the rostrum that the party backs cuts. Leaving the House chamber on Tuesday, many were visibly frustrated by the president’s charge and argued that he was painting with far too broad of a brush.
They also believe the episode has shattered any chance to make any perceived headway on the subject for the foreseeable future, even as Medicare is expected to experience a funding shortfall in 2028, and Social Security in 2034.
“It’s been the third rail for a long, long, long time. Quite honestly, I think the president was wrong to say Republicans are talking about cutting Social Security. They always want to talk about the benefits, benefits, benefits. But it’s a lie to tell people that Social Security is fine if we don’t do anything,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said. “I’m a little irritated by it, but it certainly demonstrated perceived potency anyway. What it demonstrated is that Democrats will always, always, always weaponize Social Security because the elderly are a group that they can scare into voting for them on the topic.”
However, the president has received backup from his own party, which believes lumping Scott in with the GOP overall is more than fair.
“Whether they’re the senator from Florida or the senator from Wisconsin, [Republicans who] lay out plans to cut Social Security, obviously, they’re members of the Republican Party. They have plans that would weaken Social Security and Medicare,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).
“The president was perfectly accurate in pointing to those examples,” Van Hollen added.