Biden and GOP Tangle Over Social Security and Medicare

Biden and GOP Tangle Over Social Security and Medicare

Rabble-rousing Republicans keep giving President Joe Biden wins.

In a particularly tumultuous moment in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, Biden accused a handful of Republicans of planning to wipe out some of the nation’s bedrock social welfare programs, Social Security and Medicare.

“Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share, some Republicans – some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset,” Biden said.

Republicans in the chamber responded with a round of jeers and catcalls in protest, with one lawmaker — the flamboyantly dressed bomb thrower from Georgia, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene — shouting, “Liar!”

Biden, who noted that it was only a minority of Republicans promoting such a proposal, said he’d be happy to provide proof of his claim. “Anybody who doubts it, contact my office,” he said. “I'll give you a copy. I'll give you a copy of the proposal!”

Biden then embraced the uproar, saying it provided proof that Republicans and Democrats agree that Social Security and Medicare should be exempt from cuts – an important issue as Republicans press for reductions in federal spending in exchange for raising the debt limit. “So, tonight, let's all agree – and we apparently are – let's stand up for seniors,” he said. “Stand up and show them we will not cut Social Security. We will not cut Medicare.”

Is there a GOP plan? Although he didn’t name any specific lawmakers on Tuesday night, Biden made clear in remarks delivered in Wisconsin on Wednesday that he was referring in part to a proposal from Sen. Rick Scott, the Florida Republican who last year issued a “Plan to Rescue America.” Under Scott’s plan, all federal legislation would expire every five years — including the legislation authorizing Social Security and Medicare, among many other programs.

Biden has attacked the proposal for months and used it as a foil during last year’s midterm elections. Scott has pushed back against the notion that sunsetting the legislation means that the programs would be eliminated, since Congress could reauthorize them again. But the fact remains that his plan would do just as Biden said: sunset Social Security and Medicare while exposing the programs to the whims of a new Congress every five years.

“The president was correct here,” said CNN’s Daniel Dale, in a fact check of Biden’s claim. “He was not lying.”

So why are Republicans expressing such outrage at Biden’s comments? For one thing, Scott’s proposal — which originally included a controversial plan to raise taxes on millions of Americans who he says don’t have sufficient “skin in the game” — isn’t exactly popular in the GOP, and does not express any formal party agenda. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) quickly rejected the Scott proposal when it appeared last year, even as he refused to provide an agenda of his own. “We will not have as part of our agenda a bill that raises taxes on half the American people and sunsets Social Security and Medicare within five years,” McConnell said.

In addition, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has said Republicans will leave Social Security and Medicare aside as they press for spending cuts amid a burgeoning debt ceiling showdown. Those programs should be “completely off the table,” McCarthy has said, though there are questions about whether McCarthy’s view is fully shared within the quarrelsome House Republican caucus.

Still, it’s worth noting that Scott’s plan has drawn some support within the GOP. Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) said earlier this year that he was “on board” with the proposal. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) has expressed approval, too, and even offered his own plan in which all federal legislation would sunset every single year.

More broadly, many Republicans over the years have expressed doubts about Social Security and Medicare if not out outright opposition to the programs, which were created under Democratic presidents, pushing the country toward “socialism” in the eyes of many conservatives. President George W. Bush famously attempted to privatize the Social Security system in 2005, a popular idea among conservatives that has recently been revived by former Vice President Mike Pence as he maneuvers for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. Sen. Mike Lee – the Utah Republican who appeared to be particularly offended by Biden’s comments Tuesday night, and who accused the president of lying about the Republican agenda – was once recorded saying that his objective in running for the Senate is to “phase out Social Security, to pull it up by the roots and get rid of it,” adding that, “Medicare and Medicaid are of the same sort and need to be pulled out.” Biden on Wednesday used those comments as evidence he was right.

Debt ceiling negotiations aside, many Republicans are currently mulling options for how to shore up the finances of Medicare and Social Security, both of which face funding shortfalls in the coming years as the baby boomers age and place an enormous strain on both systems. Most of their proposals involve some kind of cuts, such as raising the retirement age, capping payment levels and means-testing benefits — cuts that many Republicans claim are essential for maintaining the viability of the programs.

At his appearance in Wisconsin, Biden continued to play up the idea of Republicans targeting the popular programs, while portraying himself as their defender. “They sure didn’t like me calling them [out] on it,” Biden said. “A lot of Republicans, their dream is to cut Social Security, Medicare. Well, let me just say this. It’s your dream, but I’m going to, with my veto pen, make it a nightmare.”

The bottom line: Biden was seeking to score political points in his State of the Union address by citing a marginal conservative plan that could undermine Social Security and Medicare. Despite Republican complaints, the plan does exist — as do questions about just how willing Republican lawmakers will be in the coming months to push for cuts to Social Security and Medicare in the long run. But both programs face funding shortfalls, with Social Security’s trust funds projected to be insolvent by 2035 and the Medicare Hospital Insurance on track to be depleted by 2028, and lawmakers will have to address those shortfalls if they want to avoid abrupt benefit cuts.