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2024 kicks off with sparring over Medicare, Social Security

First Read is your briefing from “Meet the Press” and the NBC Political Unit on the day’s most important political stories and why they matter.
Joe Biden during an event to discuss Social Security and Medicare in Tampa, Fla.
Joe Biden during an event to discuss Social Security and Medicare in Tampa, Fla., on Feb. 9, 2023. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — If it’s Friday ... Former Vice President Mike Pence receives a subpoena from the special counsel investigating former President Donald Trump and Jan. 6. ... President Biden welcomes the nation’s governors to the White House and then meets with Brazil’s new president. ... Biden, in Telemundo interview, says the Chinese spy balloon was “not a major breach” of security. ... And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell slams Sen. Rick Scott, Fla., over Scott’s plan to sunset all federal legislation, per NBC’s Julie Tsirkin and Liz Brown-Kaiser.

But first: It’s significant that the 2024 presidential cycle has started with a policy skirmish over entitlements — when President Biden argued (correctly) that some Republicans wanted to sunset programs like Social Security and Medicare, and when Republicans jeered him for saying it. 

It’s underscored just how potent entitlements have been in our politics (see Bush 43’s call to partially privatize Social Security in 2005, the fights over Obamacare and Medicare, the Paul Ryan budget plan). 

It’s allowed Mitch McConnell to knock Rick Scott. “I think it will be a challenge for him to deal with this in his own re-election in Florida, a state with more elderly people than any other state in America,” McConnell said of Scott. 

It’s a reminder how Donald Trump largely took entitlements off the table in his 2016 run and presidency.

It’s also a reminder how his likely opponents (Ron DeSantis, Mike Pence, Nikki Haley) have crystal-clear records supporting Paul Ryan’s Medicare proposal and/or partial Social Security privatization — and how that could benefit Trump in 2024. 

Yet maybe more than anything else, it represents a surrender by fiscal conservatives as well as some Democrats to address these programs’ solvency — even if it’s at the margins. 

“Medicare’s trust fund is projected to be exhausted by 2028, at which point the federal government probably would delay or reduce reimbursements to doctors and hospitals under the federal insurance program relied on by more than 60 million people,” the Washington Post writes. “Unless Congress acts, Social Security benefits for a similar number will also be cut by 20 percent starting in 2035.”

Headline of the day

Data Download: The number of the day is … 419

That’s how many House members voted to unanimously approve a resolution on Thursday “condemning the Chinese Communist Party’s use of a high-altitude surveillance balloon over United States territory as a brazen violation of United States sovereignty,” according to NBC News’ Capitol Hill team. No House member opposed the resolution — 15 did not vote.

The vote comes as lawmakers in both parties have raised concerns about the Biden administration’s handling of the balloon. NBC News’ Julie Tsirkin and Jillian Frankel report that a Senate subcommittee hearing on Thursday featured some tense moments as senators pressed defense officials on the incident. 

“Do we have a plan for the next time that happens and how we’re going to deal with it?” asked Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., “Because quite frankly, I’ll just tell you, I don’t want a damn balloon going across the United States.”

Other numbers to know:

250: The number of House members, from both sides of the aisle, who successfully voted to overturn Washington, D.C.’s new criminal code on Thursday.

$25 million: The amount the Republican Main Street Partnership is planning to spend on House races in 2024, backing GOP candidates in swing districts.

222: The number of inmates from Nicaragua, many of whom are considered to be political prisoners, who were released and flown to the U.S. on Thursday.

2: The number of New Jersey council members who have been killed in recent weeks, as a member of the Milford Borough Council was found dead in the parking lot outside of his work this week. 

230,000: The number of students across 21 states who did not return to school after the pandemic, according to an analysis by the Associated Press.

3: The number of years a man was sentenced to on Thursday after he carried a Confederate flag through the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

1 in 5: The number of people with diabetes who reported rationing their insulin to cut costs in 2021.

7: The number of Democrats on Thursday who introduced a resolution to expel Rep George Santos from Congress for lying about parts of his background before he was elected, according to Axios.

Eyes on 2024: Divided he stands, united he falls? 

New polling from Monmouth University continues to reinforce this truth about the GOP presidential primary: Right now, it’s a two-man show between Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former President Donald Trump. 

Both men are the only two to register more than 2% in the recent poll, tied at 33% when Republicans are asked an open-ended question about their pick for the nomination (about a quarter say they don’t know yet). DeSantis fares far better in a head-to-head — leading Trump 53% to 40%. 

Another poll released Thursday -- from Yahoo/YouGov — shows a similar dynamic: DeSantis leading in a head-to-head but Trump benefitting from a divided field,. And it’s something that has at least one influential conservative, The FAMilY Leader President Bob Vander Plaats already wondering if Trump will again ride a split field to the GOP nomination. 

In other campaign news:

Sununu enters stage right: New Hampshire GOP Gov. Chris Sununu, who is openly weighing a run for president, argued at a Politico event on Thursday that he’s not exactly a moderate. “I would challenge anyone on conservative credentials,” he said, while also taking a swipe at Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis. 

High energy Trump: Trump expanded on his energy policy proposals in a new video released on Thursday, NBC News’ Olympia Sonnier reports. In his video Trump pledged to “deploy a team of warrior lawyers to hunt down every unnecessary regulation in the federal registry that hampers domestic production,” “issue approvals for all worthy energy infrastructure projects with a focus on maximum speed to bring prices down rapidly,” and “restore hope and aspiration to America’s young people, instead of being irrationally terrified by political predictions of climate apocalypse.” 

Also yesterday in the world of Trump: The former president is back on Facebook and Instagram, and he’s reuniting with his longtime advisor, Jason Miller, who will officially join his campaign again

Pence jumps into culture wars: Former Vice President Mike Pence’s advocacy group is launching an ad buy in Iowa as part of a “grassroots campaign” opposing a local school district’s policy allowing transgender students to request a “gender support plan” without their parents’ consent, per The Hill. Pence is reportedly planning to travel to the Hawkeye State next week.

Cornhusker showdown: Former Nebraska gubernatorial hopeful Charles Herbster is considering challenging newly appointed GOP Sen. Pete Ricketts for Senate next year, the Dispatch reports. Herbster lost last year’s GOP primary to Ricketts ally Jim Pillen. 

Lawler and order: Freshman Rep. Mike Lawler, R-N.Y., broke down how he was able to defeat then-Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Sean Patrick Maloney, telling Roll Call, “Folks can underestimate me at their own peril.”  

Chicago’s mayoral race: Former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn weighed in on Chicago’s mayoral race with the election less than three weeks away, backing former Democratic Rep. Chuy García over Mayor Lori Lightfoot, per the Chicago Tribune. 

Hogan’s haul: The Hill reports that former Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has raised $6 million the last two yearsas he considers jumping into the presidential primary. 

Veepstakes: Iowa Republican Joni Ernst told CBS that Arkansas Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders is vice presidential material after her “incredible” State of the Union response. 

The first TV ad of ‘24: Michigan Republican businessman Perry Johnson is setting up a committee for a potential presidential bid, running a Super Bowl ad and traveling to Iowa, per The Detroit News. Johnson ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for Michigan governor in 2022.

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world

Nancy Pelosi is advocating for former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Sean Patrick Maloney to be the next Secretary of Labor after Secretary Marty Walsh leaves his post.

Hunter Biden’s legal team rejected a request from House Republicans for documents related to his business dealings.

After Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., was taken to the hospital this week because he felt lightheaded, doctors on Thursday ruled out the possibility that he had suffered another stroke. As of Thursday evening, his spokesman tweeted he was being monitored for signs of a seizure. 

Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn., was attacked Thursday in the elevator of her apartment building, her office said, and there was no evidence the attack was politically motivated.