Republicans scramble to avoid Medicare land mine
Republicans are scrambling to avoid stepping on the political landmine of proposed cuts to Medicare and other popular safety-net programs after President Trump in a recent interview said they could one day be on the chopping block.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced Tuesday that he does not plan to put a budget resolution on the Senate floor, which could subject vulnerable GOP colleagues up for reelection this year to tough votes on Medicare and other issues.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) announced Monday that he doesn’t plan to hold hearings on Trump’s budget, which proposed new cuts to Medicaid and other domestic spending programs.
The upshot is that the Republican Party, which once prided itself as the party of fiscal discipline and regularly blasted Democrats when they controlled the Senate for not passing budget resolutions, is looking for other issues to talk about.
McConnell on Tuesday highlighted confirmation votes this week on five federal judicial nominees, including the 51st judge Trump has appointed to a federal appellate court.
Instead of putting a Republican budget blueprint on the Senate floor, McConnell said he will simply stick to the annual spending cap set by the bipartisan budget deal that Trump signed last year, which suspended the federal deficit limit through July 2021 and raised military and domestic spending by $320 billion over two years.
“I can’t imagine that we can reach an agreement on a budget with this particular House of Representatives,” McConnell told reporters, referring to the ideological gulf between him and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
“We’ve got the caps deal in place. We negotiated it last year. It’s good for the second year, and we’ll comply with that,” he said.
House Democratic budgetary leaders earlier this year signaled they didn’t expect to produce a budget either.
Still, the decision by McConnell underscores the sensitivity to the GOP of opening itself up to proposals to reduce the costs of Medicare or Social Security.
Trump told CNBC in an interview last month that cuts to entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid could be considered in the future to bring down the federal deficit, which is projected to exceed $1 trillion per year over the next decade.
The president vowed to cut the deficit in his presidential campaign but has seen annual deficits soar during his presidency. His new budget anticipates balancing in 15 years, but it leans on optimistic economic projections to get there.
Trump tried to walk back his statement about possible cuts to Medicare, but Democrats have seized on the issue — signaling their intention to speak to voters about the threat of cuts if Republicans are in power in Washington.
McConnell said 2020 would be the third year in a row that the Senate has not passed a budget resolution just a day after Enzi said he would put together a budget resolution.
When Democrats controlled the chamber, McConnell vowed that Republicans would pass budget plans once they took over the majority.
“The law requires us to pass a budget,” he told reporters in 2012, calling it “stunning” that Democrats had gone 1,000 days in power without passing a budget.
Some members of McConnell’s conference are interested in having a discussion over how to curb the growth of entitlement programs. The deficit is now projected to hit $1.7 trillion in 2030.
“This is a problem. Both Republicans and Democrats have a spending addiction. Nobody knows what to do. Democrats, remember, they weren’t doing budgets when they were in charge. Now Republicans aren’t either,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), an outspoken fiscal conservative.
“Really the meat of spending is entitlements. You got to have some guts to look at it,” Paul added.
A fight over entitlements is a non-starter for most Republicans in an election year, however.
Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) held a press conference Tuesday to attack Trump’s budget plan, with both Democrats seizing on what they said were cuts to Medicare in the Trump budget.
The administration has proposed spending reductions to Medicare as part of the budget but says this would be done in a way that would not reduce benefits.
Pelosi said Trump’s “heartless budget” proposes “slashing a half a trillion from Medicare” and “from Medicaid $900 billion.”
“After he stood in front of the House and said I’m protecting Medicare and Social Security,” Pelosi added, referring to last week’s State of the Union address.
Trump declared before a joint session of Congress last week: “We will always protect your Medicare and Social Security.”
White House officials say Democrats are taking the proposed reforms to both Medicare and Medicaid out of context.
“Despite what you hear from the other side, Medicare will grow at 6 percent under this budget,” acting Office of Management and Budget Director Russ Vought told reporters Monday.
“Reducing the cost of health care is not a cut,” Vought said.
He argued that Medicaid will continue to grow at more than 3 percent per year on average, higher than the cost of inflation.
Republicans traditionally have lost fights with Democrats over government funding cuts.
At the Tuesday press conference, Pelosi highlighted the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare’s statement that Trump’s budget would “leave seniors and other vulnerable citizens hungrier, sicker and poorer.”