If you didn’t know any better, you’d walk away from Joe Biden’s State of the Union thinking Republicans were some of Social Security and Medicare’s biggest advocates. Biden’s assertion Tuesday night that some Republicans wanted to “sunset” the two major entitlement programs was met with jeers and boos on the right side of the aisle. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene shouted “Liar!” and Senator Mike Lee scowled in disgust. Others simply yelled “No!”
In reality, though, it’s actually quite easy to find examples of Republicans calling for cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
Specifically, Biden’s unnamed culprit (the president said Tuesday night he was not naming names) was likely Senator Rick Scott, who, as chairman of the GOP’s Senate campaign committee last cycle, unveiled a plan to sunset all federal legislation, which includes Social Security and Medicare, in five years, opening the door for lapses or cuts. (On Wednesday, Scott called Biden’s remarks a “lie” and said his plan was “aimed at dealing with all the crazy new laws our Congress has been passing of late.”)
And Scott isn’t the only one who has seemingly taken a swipe at two of the biggest federal programs. Just last summer, Senator Ron Johnson called for subjecting Medicare and Social Security to annual budget negotiations. In fact, cutting Social Security and Medicare seemed very much top of mind for Republicans last year: Lindsey Graham declared entitlement reform a “must,” and the House’s largest Republican caucus, the conservative Republican Study Committee, released a proposal that urged raising the eligibility age for both Medicare and Social Security, called for increased means testing in Medicare, and suggested a move toward privatization for Social Security.
Of course, these ideas go back much further. Marco Rubio said he was open to raising the retirement age in 2010 in his first Senate campaign. There’s a video circulating the web of a 2010 Lee saying he wanted to “phase out” Social Security. And George W. Bush had a self-inflicted entitlement blunder too: Early in his second term, he pushed heavily for, among other reforms, partially privatizing Social Security—only to realize that the strategy had failed after his approval rating took a pounding.
So why the sudden Republican outrage at the notion that they want these cuts? Well, they have good reason to be cagey: 84% of Republicans and 86% of Democrats want Social Security benefits to increase, not decrease, according to a 2022 survey from Data for Progress. Additionally, roughly half of all elderly Americans “live in households that receive at least 50% of total family income from Social Security,” per the Social Security Administration, meaning that any cuts would eventually impact a huge swath of the voting public.
There’s been some awareness of the sheer unpopularity of these proposals. Scott’s proposal was admonished by his superior, Mitch McConnell, who seemed aware that the Florida senator had given Democrats enough ammunition to last the midterms. Perhaps, Donald Trump understood this dynamic best, when in the run up to his 2016 victory, he claimed: “I’m not going to cut Social Security like every other Republican and I’m not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid.”
Republicans often launch their boldest attacks against entitlements when they aren’t wielding the presidential veto. During the House Republican majority’s debt ceiling fight in 2013, a group of 51 GOP lawmakers demanded that Speaker John Boehner include Social Security cuts in negotiations with Barack Obama, calling it the “best opportunity to begin solving our nation’s significant budget imbalances.” But the last time Republicans controlled the White House, Senate, and House, they did not make a concerted effort to cut entitlements. (Although Paul Ryan, then House Speaker, has said he really wanted to. “[Trump] and I fought about Medicare and entitlement reform all the time,” Ryan said last year. “It became clear to me there was no way he wanted to embrace that.”)
Trump has continued urging Republicans against pursuing Social Security and Medicare cuts, and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy appears to be listening for now; he said that entitlements will remain “off the table” in the ongoing debt negotiations with the White House. It should be noted that McCarthy declined to rule out entitlement cuts in an October interview, and other House Republicans seem more than happy to touch the social-policy third rail. “I’m all for a balanced budget, but we’re not going to do it on the backs of our troops and our military,” Representative Michael Waltz, a Florida Republican, told Fox Business last month. “If we really want to talk about the debt and spending, it’s the entitlements programs.”
For now, though, Republicans are stating—dramatically—that they would never do a thing to Social Security and Medicare, leaving their decades-long crusade against entitlements in a holding pattern.
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