Distrust over GOP plans for Social Security, Medicare marks rocky start to budget talks

Republican leaders vowing to protect Social Security and Medicare benefits as part of the coming budget battles are running into a wall of skepticism across the aisle, lending a rocky start to the high-stakes debate over the future of federal spending.

Despite Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) promise that entitlement cuts are “off the table” in the debt-ceiling talks, House Democrats simply don’t believe that the same Republican Party that’s fought for decades to slash those programs has reversed course so drastically this year.  

“I don’t trust them on that,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.). “Since the 1930s these folks have been gunning for Social Security.”

The liberals’ staunch defense of the entitlements stands as a warning to GOP leaders, who want to balance the federal budget within a decade — a feat that’s virtually impossible without touching entitlements, the Pentagon, taxes or all three — and will need Democratic support to adopt any new budget changes. 

It also puts pressure on President Biden — who’s vowing to oppose any entitlement cuts — to make good on that promise as he enters the momentous budget negotiations with McCarthy. 

Liberals were up in arms more than a decade ago when then-President Obama proposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare as part of an unsuccessful “grand bargain” with then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), and would be equally infuriated if Biden sought something similar this year. 

The president, for his part, has given no indication he’s even considering such a deal. Instead, he used last week’s State of the Union speech — and a more recent visit to Florida, a retirement hub — to portray Republicans as the party hellbent on slashing popular senior benefits that he’s fighting to protect. 

“Republicans don’t like being called out on this,” Biden said Thursday in Tampa. “A lot of Republicans — their dream is to cut Social Security and Medicare. Well, let me say this: If that’s your dream, I’m your nightmare.”

Biden’s attacks have infuriated Republicans, who insist they have no designs to cut those programs and are pushing back hard against the Democrats’ characterizations. 

“The Speaker has said they’re not going to be on the table,” said Rep. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.). “So, frankly, it’s a disingenuous argument put forth by the president, when we’re on record saying we’re not doing it.”

Complicating the GOP’s argument, however, is the party’s historic opposition to the major safety net programs, which they’ve portrayed as socialist initiatives that undermine American innovation and free markets — attacks that go back to even before their founding. Prominent critics over the years have included Ronald Reagan, who warned against the adoption of socialized medicine; former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who hoped to see Medicare “wither on the vine;” and former Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), whose annual budgets proposed steep cuts.  

The arrival of former President Trump, who pledged no cuts to the major safety net programs, marked a sharp realignment of Republicans’ traditional position. But it remains to be seen if that was a temporary posture. 

More recently, GOP Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.) has been pushing a plan to “sunset” all federal programs after five years, with no exception for the entitlements, while the Republican Study Committee, a group representing more than 75 percent of the House GOP conference, is proposing to raise the eligibility age for Medicare and Social Security as part of their 2023 “Blueprint to Save America.” 

“Why would we trust them, when the Republican Study Committee talks about raising the age of Social Security eligibility to 70?” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said Tuesday by phone. “We’ve seen these tries over and over again.”

Schakowsky, who introduced legislation this week to enhance Social Security benefits by $200 per month, noted that McCarthy is in a tough spot politically, given both the GOP’s narrow House majority and the pressure he’s facing from conservatives to slash federal spending. 

“The reason I don’t trust them is that Kevin McCarthy is often at the mercy of his members. And if you talk about this Republican Study Committee, we’re talking about a large number of his members,” she said. “So does he really run his conference? Can he really stand up to them?

“It is absolutely important for us to stay vigilant.”

Many Republicans, well aware of the popularity of Social Security and Medicare, are racing away from the suggestion that they aim to cut those programs, pointing back to McCarthy’s promise.

“We’ve taken them off the table in the debt-limit negotiations,” said Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.). “And so that’s not going to be anything that we discuss.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has also taken long strides to distance the party from Scott’s sunset proposal, suggesting Scott is an outlier in a conference with no plans to tackle the entitlements in the near term. 

“There is no agenda on the part of Senate Republicans to revisit Medicare or Social Security,” McConnell told reporters Tuesday in the Capitol. “Period.”

Still, House Republicans have some different ideas. And with Medicare expected to undergo a funding shortfall in 2028, and Social Security forecast to follow in 2034, a number of GOP lawmakers are warning that congressional action in some form is inevitable.

“At the end of the day we’re going to have to come together and do something. If we don’t, current law in Medicare and Social Security says that beneficiaries are affected,” said Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), a former physician. “As a Medicare beneficiary, that worries me.”

Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) agreed that Congress must act, warning that the fixes get more expensive with each passing year. But he rejected the GOP proposal to raise eligibility ages, and says he’s not quite ready to take McCarthy at his word that benefit cuts are really off the table in the coming budget fight. He quoted Finley Peter Dunne, a Chicago humorist, who advised more than a century ago to “trust everybody, but cut the cards.” 

“We hope, clearly, that McCarthy and the Republicans have come to their senses, but that’s not what their past history, nor their [RSC] report, nor Mr. Scott … have to say,” Larson said Tuesday. “We have to be skeptical. And I think Dunne had it right: Trust everyone, but we’ll be cutting the cards.”

Alexander Bolton contributed.

Tags Jan Schakowsky Jared Huffman Jared Huffman Joe Biden Kevin McCarthy Kevin McCarthy medicare President Joe Biden Rick Scott Ronald Reagan social security State of the Union

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