The Memo: Biden ups pressure on GOP over Medicare

President Joe Biden speaks to the House Democratic Caucus Issues Conference, Wednesday, March 1, 2023, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Biden announced his plan to save Medicare Tuesday. His broader strategy is to tag Republicans as the social safety net’s would-be destroyers.

The president and others in his party are convinced the GOP’s fiscal hawkishness is politically toxic with voters when it comes to Medicare and Social Security — and that it is especially ruinous among older Americans who are current beneficiaries.

Older people, importantly, turn out to vote at consistently high rates.

The GOP has not coalesced around one proposal to reform the social safety programs, but the party is broadly more pro-reform than Democrats in the name of fiscal conservatism.

Biden has already made political hay with a proposal from Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) that would have seen all federal legislation, including the laws underpinning Social Security and Medicare, lapse every five years unless reauthorized.

In February, after Biden drew new attention to that proposal in his State of the Union address — “their dream is to cut Social Security and Medicare,” the president claimed — Scott belatedly amended his plan to exclude those programs from the sunsetting provision.

By then, however, some damage had clearly been done.

A wild card in the debate, meanwhile, is former President Trump, who has set his face against cuts and excoriated potential GOP rivals for supporting them. Late last month, Trump argued in a Truth Social post that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) “wanted big cuts” to the programs. 

Trump added that this made DeSantis “a wheelchair over the cliff kind of guy.”

Biden’s new proposal on Medicare was announced in part through a New York Times op-ed.

In it, he wrote that he wanted to increase the rate of the Medicare tax slightly on Americans with incomes over $400,000. 

“When Medicare was passed, the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans didn’t have more than five times the wealth of the bottom 50 percent combined, and it only makes sense that some adjustments be made to reflect that reality today,” Biden wrote. “Let’s ask them to pay their fair share.”

The president also proposed expanding Medicare’s ability to negotiate drug prices. The Inflation Reduction Act, passed last year, gave the program this ability for the first time, but limited it to certain drugs.

Biden asserted that his proposal would protect the Medicare trust fund for roughly a quarter-century, ensuring its solvency into the 2050s.

His budget proposal is exceedingly unlikely to pass, given Republican control of the House and the slim Democratic majority in the Senate. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters on Tuesday that Biden’s framework would “not see the light of day,” according to The Associated Press.

But that’s not really the point. 

Biden’s real plan is to set the starkest possible contrast between himself and the GOP on the issue. 

That’s especially important to the White House as Biden’s likely announcement of a reelection bid looms — and as the president reconciles himself to the reality that few meaningful legislative accomplishments are likely in the remainder of his first term

In this Times op-ed, Biden redeployed his favorite label for the Trump-era GOP, “MAGA Republicans” and said that if they “get their way seniors will pay higher out-of-pocket costs on prescription drugs and insulin, the deficit will be bigger, and Medicare will be weaker.”

Biden also called on Republicans to produce their own budget proposal, which they have pledged to do. That is likely to be a politically perilous endeavor, given the party’s overall commitment to cutting government spending but its lack of consensus on what exactly ought to be pared back.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre underscored the point in Tuesday’s media briefing, when she was asked about Biden’s Medicare plan and whether he would offer something similar on Social Security.

“The biggest threat to Social Security are Republicans and you’ve heard them,” Jean-Pierre said, characterizing the GOP position as “their relentless drive to cut these important programs for Americans, for our veterans, for our seniors.”

“Again, we look forward to seeing the Republicans share their plan with the American people since they have promised that they are going to put a budget forward,” she added.

Some Republicans acknowledge the political difficulties for the party.

But some argue that there is a way to thread the needle on the two huge social safety net programs for older Americans.

Brendan Steinhauser, a Texas-based Republican strategist, argued that the sweet spot lay in promising older voters no changes would be made that would impact existing beneficiaries or those on the cusp of becoming eligible — while at the same time pushing reforms that would take effect in the medium-term. Those changes could be portrayed as safeguarding the programs for future generations.

But even Steinhauser hesitated about calling such a plan a winning argument.

“I don’t know if it’s a winning argument but it’s at least a draw, to be honest about it,” he said.

He also acknowledged that the GOP had been damaged by the furor over Scott’s sunsetting proposal.

While emphasizing he believed sunsetting costly legislation in general is “a rational idea,” he added that in this case, “it gave the Democrats a good talking point during the State of the Union and it will be used to bludgeon” Republicans. 

Biden and the Democrats will be hoping that bludgeoning works for a long time — especially as a challenging election year creeps closer.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Biden Karine Jean-Pierre Rick Scott

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