President Joe Biden and Republicans are continuing their war of words over Social Security and Medicare.
At an event in Tampa, Florida, on Thursday, Biden again hammered Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) and others in the GOP for proposals that he says threaten those safety net programs, looking to capitalize on an issue that the White House reportedly sees as potent and beneficial in the runup to the 2024 elections.
“We want this fight,” an unnamed senior White House official told CNN ahead of the event. “We relish this fight.”
The president and administration officials had looked to score political points ahead of last year’s midterm elections by focusing on a proposal by Scott that would require Social Security and Medicare to be renewed by Congress every five years — and they are clearly eager to make the most of the issue now that they have another opportunity to do so.
That opportunity has arisen as the result of Republican outbursts after Biden, during his State of the Union address Tuesday night, mentioned GOP proposals that could sunset the safety net programs. Republicans jeered, and Biden went off script in response, looking to lock in a commitment from Republicans to not touch the programs even as they look to force spending cuts: “So folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare, off the books now, right?” Biden said.
Just like that, the White House had a moment it could work with and a newly relevant foil it could play against. What advisors later described as a trap for Republicans had worked.
“Strategists from both parties said the Republican outbursts during his address to Congress — and Mr. Biden’s real-time exchange about the fate of the entitlement programs with a handful of heckling lawmakers — instantly crystallized, on national television in front of millions of Americans, what Mr. Biden has been struggling to say,” Michael D. Shear reports in The New York Times.
Talking tough in Tampa: As he did during his State of the Union address earlier in the week, Biden on Thursday used his speech to tout his legislative accomplishments, pointing to the Inflation Reduction Act’s allowing Medicare to negotiate certain drug prices and instituting a $2,000 annual limit on out-of-pocket prescription costs. He again called on lawmakers to extend a $35-a-month cap on the price of insulin to private insurers.
Biden also criticized Florida for not expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. “Over 1.1 million people in Florida would be eligible for Medicaid if Governor DeSantis just said, 'I agree to expand it.' This isn’t calculus,” Biden said. “It’s time to get this done.”
Then he turned to Social Security and Medicare.
“Now, you may have seen, we had a little bit of a spirited debate at the State of the Union,” Biden said. As he did a day earlier in Wisconsin, Biden pulled out proposals from Sens. Rick Scott (R-FL) and Ron Johnson (R-WI). “I know that 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 said, joking, “By the way, that may be redundant. I think they already think I am.”
“The very idea that the senator from Florida wants to put Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block every five years I find to be somewhat outrageous,” Biden said before pulling out a pamphlet to read from Scott’s plan. White House aides reportedly had placed copies of Scott’s plan on every seat for the Tampa event.
Biden said his budget plan, due out next month, would lower the deficit by $2 trillion without cutting the major entitlement programs. “I will not cut a single Social Security or Medicare benefit,” Biden said. “In fact, I’m going to extend the Medicare trust fund for at least two decades.”
Scott punches back: For as much as Biden seems to relish this fight, Scott seems to as well. The senator ran an ad calling on Biden to resign and sought to dispute Biden’s claims during a contentious morning appearance on CNN, arguing that he never intended to end Social Security and Medicare.
Scott pointed out that, as a senator in 1975, Biden had introduced a bill that would have sunset budget authority for all federal programs after four or six years. And he tried to flip the script on Democrats. “Let’s remember, just a few months ago all Democrats voted and Joe Biden signed a bill to cut $280 billion out of Medicare,” Scott said, misrepresenting the savings that are projected to come from allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices. Scott argued that those savings amounted to a cut. (“The law actually makes Medicare’s prescription drug program more generous to seniors while also saving them money,” CNN noted in a fact check.)
The White House pushed back hard. “Rick Scott is in overdrive to make himself the national poster-child for Republicans’ longstanding attacks on Medicare and Social Security benefits,” White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said in a statement. Bates told CNN: “Every time Rick Scott opens his mouth, he proves the president’s point. The man who got rich overseeing the biggest Medicare fraud in history is protesting too much – again.”
The bottom line: Biden pledged to veto Scott’s plan if it ever gets to his desk, but there’s little chance of that. Few Republicans have backed Scott’s proposals, though the Republican Study Committee, a group of more than 150 House Republicans, put out a budget plan last year that included cuts to Social Security and Medicare for future beneficiaries. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has publicly said he’d take Social Security and Medicare off the table as he looks to win spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling.
The real bottom line: Budget analysts point out that Social Security and Medicare will need to be reformed if lawmakers want to avoid an abrupt cut in benefits.