McCarthy Looks to Defuse Fears That GOP Would Slash Social Security
Social Security

McCarthy Looks to Defuse Fears That GOP Would Slash Social Security

Aaron Bernstein

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy on Wednesday tried to assuage any fears that the GOP would look to slash Social Security and Medicare as part of a plan to leverage the debt ceiling to force federal spending cuts.

As we told you yesterday, McCarthy had indicated to Punchbowl News that his party would look to use the debt limit to force spending cuts if it wins control of the House in next month’s midterm elections. Punchbowl’s Jake Sherman reported Tuesday that McCarthy said he wouldn’t “predetermine” whether entitlement reforms would be part of that debate. Other GOP leaders, meanwhile, have recently suggested changes to Social Security and Medicare, including some who have proposed forcing cuts to the programs in conjunction with raising the debt limit — a strategy that carries enormous risks given that failure to raise the debt limit could cause global financial chaos.

In a Wednesday morning interview with CNBC, McCarthy said he never brought up the entitlement programs in his Punchbowl News interview and pointed instead to a one-line promise to strengthen the programs contained in House Republicans’ “Commitment to America” agenda for next year.

“Let me be very clear, I never mentioned Social Security or Medicare. Actually, in the ‘Commitment to America,’ we say to strengthen Social Security and Medicare,” McCarthy told CNBC.

McCarthy acknowledged that the debt ceiling needs to be lifted but argued that spending cuts should be part of that process. “The question was, would you just raise the debt ceiling without having a discussion, not about entitlements but about our spending behavior right now? And my question would be, we have to change our behavior. We can’t continue down this path.”

The initial Punchbowl News report spurred numerous other news articles — and criticism from top Democrats, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office warning: “Top House Republicans are being increasingly open about their plans to hold the debt limit hostage to force through their extreme plans to slash Medicare and Social Security.”

Pelosi’s press office also pointed to a plan released earlier this year by the Republican Study Committee that proposed to raise the eligibility age for Medicare and Social Security to 70 and would open the door to private retirement savings alternatives, among other changes. Those proposals wouldn’t apply to current retirees but would kick in for those who reach early retirement age by fiscal year 2030.

Republicans said those proposed changes would help preserve Social Security and ensure its long-term solvency, but Pelosi’s office warned that, “With three out of four House Republicans endorsing these plans to dismantle Medicare and Social Security, it’s clear the House GOP is reaching dangerous new levels of extremism.”

What it all means: Republicans have pledged to “save and strengthen Social Security and Medicare” as part of their agenda if they take control of the House. Democrats argue — with some evidence to back them up —that Republicans really mean to “save and strengthen” the programs by slashing them.

Lawmakers will have to address the long-term outlook for the popular safety net programs if they want to shore up Medicare's finances and avoid steep cuts to Social Security benefits — but trying to do so as part of a debt limit showdown could be dangerous and less than effective.