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Why the fate of Medicare and Social Security is a midterm issue

The fate of Social Security and Medicare is back in the spotlight less than two weeks before the midterms.

The White House and Democrats have made both entitlements central to their closing pitch to voters, sounding the alarm that a Republican majority in the House would look to cut programs that millions of Americans rely on in a bid to reduce spending.

While some GOP lawmakers have not shied away from talk of altering those programs, many in the party have dismissed the Democratic attacks as a ploy designed to shift attention away from persistent inflation and broader concerns about the economy.

Democrats in recent days have zeroed in on a particularly bleak scenario: that a Republican-led House would hold the debt ceiling hostage, threatening a government default and economic crisis if the Biden administration does not agree to spending cuts.

“[They would] put us in default unless we yield to their demands to cut Social Security and Medicare. They’re so determined to cut Social Security and Medicare, they’re willing to take down the economy over it,” Biden told supporters in Syracuse, N.Y., on Thursday. “There is nothing, nothing that will create more chaos or do more damage to the American economy than that happening, if it were to happen.”

Strategists and Democratic officials view tying Republicans to attacks on Medicare and Social Security as a salient message. Those programs benefit older voters who reliably cast ballots, even in midterm or off-year elections. The programs are also overwhelmingly popular with the public, making proposed cuts or changes politically risky.

A June poll from the left-leaning Data for Progress found large majorities wanted to strengthen Social Security, including 73 percent of independents and 73 percent of Republicans.

As a result, any Republican suggestion to alter Social Security or Medicare has been turned into an attack ad, and the White House has been happy to amplify the prospect of the GOP cutting back entitlement programs.

Biden vowed Tuesday to refuse any effort to cut entitlements in the next Congress during an address to the Democratic National Committee, highlighted past GOP comments on the programs during a Thursday appearance in Syracuse, and he tweeted Friday that Republicans “are so determined to cut these programs they’re willing to take down the American economy over it.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has run ads in Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District highlighting Rep. Don Bacon’s (R-Neb.) suggestion to raise the eligibility age for Social Security; in New Hampshire’s 1st Congressional District citing GOP candidate Karoline Leavitt’s stance on privatizing Social Security; and in Michigan’s 8th Congressional District calling attention to Republican Paul Junge’s comments on the need to make changes to Social Security, including by raising the eligibility age.

Republicans have long advocated for reduced spending, and some in the party have argued entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare have gotten too big or should be restructured or privatized to ensure they remain solvent.

Much of the focus during this election cycle has been on a proposal from Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the head of the Senate GOP campaign arm, released in February. The 11-point plan to “Rescue America” included a proposal to sunset government programs every five years, meaning lawmakers would need to vote to extend Medicare and Social Security.

Biden on Thursday also cited comments earlier this year from Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who suggested funding for Social Security and Medicare should be approved yearly through the budgeting process.

But with majorities in the House and Senate within reach, GOP officials have treaded carefully around Scott’s proposal and avoided committing to changes to entitlement programs.

Multiple lawmakers, including those in the running to chair the House Budget and House Ways and Means committees, have spoken about the possibility of entitlement reform as a way to rein in spending.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said last week he would not “predetermine” any potential plans around cutting entitlements or tying them to the debt ceiling. But a day later he sought to tamp down concerns, saying he meant he would not raise the debt ceiling without a discussion around reducing spending.

Instead, House Republicans have pointed to their midterm messaging and policy platform, dubbed the “Commitment to America,” which broadly vows to “Save and strengthen Social Security and Medicare.”

“Let me just shut the door on that right now,” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry (R-Pa.) said last week when asked about tying entitlement reform to the debt ceiling. “This is a — this is the Democrats’ usual playbook in the last three weeks here. It’s a last-ditch desperate attempt to scare our senior citizens. No one’s going to get into that.”

Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), chairman of the influential Republican Study Committee, said at a CBS News event earlier this month that the debt ceiling could be used to call for spending caps, balanced budgets, or to cut discretionary spending — actions that would not include Social Security and Medicare. 

Despite Republicans vehemently denying Democratic attacks, the White House and others feel that messaging around Social Security and Medicare is not only an effective midterm message, but a necessary warning to the public about what could happen under GOP control in the next two years.

Some experts argue it’s simply too difficult to predict how a Republican majority would function, since it is unclear both how large a GOP majority would be, and whether McCarthy or another leader will be able to marshal it.

“Are they going to want to do things that are extreme and outlandish and crazy and ridiculous? Absolutely,” said Craig Varoga, a veteran of dozens of Democratic campaigns. “Is it going to involve Social Security and Medicare? I don’t think they’re going to take anything off the table.”

Emily Brooks contributed reporting.

Tags 2022 midterms Biden Joe Biden Kevin McCarthy Kevin McCarthy medicare Medicare Ron Johnson social security Social Security
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