WASHINGTON — After President Joe Biden pummeled Republicans on Social Security and Medicare during his State of the Union address, drawing shouts of outrage from the party, Republican leaders urged him to stop telling Americans that the GOP wants to slash those retirement programs.
Then Biden paid a visit to Florida and did it again, exasperating the party and escalating a fight that is poised to play out on Capitol Hill and in the 2024 presidential election.
“The president, for a few weeks now, has been falsely saying that there are people that want to get rid of Social Security and Medicare. And it’s been inaccurate for a long time — and you saw last night when he tried to pin it on us,” House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., told NBC News one day after Biden's speech to Congress. “I just hope he stops going around the country telling that falsehood because there’s no truth to it.
“We want to strengthen Social Security by ending a lot of those government checks to people staying at home rather than going to work,” Scalise said, endorsing work requirements for benefits.
The next day, at the University of Tampa on Thursday, Biden tore into a plan from Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., saying it would “sunset Social Security and Medicare every five years.” He also went after Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who has labeled Social Security a “Ponzi scheme” and called for restructuring it.
“They were offended. ‘Liar! Liar!’” Biden mimicked.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has pushed Biden to back spending cuts but said Social Security and Medicare should be exempted. There is no bill with GOP consensus to change those programs, although there are various proposals to rein them in over time. The White House has told NBC News that Biden will keep criticizing those Republican plans.
Biden's attack stems from a policy agenda released last year by Scott, then the head of the Senate Republican campaign arm. The agenda included a section reading: “All federal legislation sunsets in 5 years. If a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again.” Democrats immediately said such a policy, if implemented, could cause Social Security and Medicare to sunset. Republican leaders, recognizing the political dangers, have distanced themselves from it. But Biden has persisted in using that and other GOP candidates' remarks on so-called entitlements to drive a wedge between them and voters who rely on the programs.
Biden advisers also cite the 2023 budget by the Republican Study Committee, a group of more than 100 House members, that proposes to raise the eligibility age for Social Security to adjust for changing life spans, and slow the growth of benefits over time. It also includes Medicare “premium support” for private plans, mirroring a controversial idea by former Speaker Paul Ryan last decade, which became a flashpoint in the 2012 election.
“Republicans don’t like being called out on this,” Biden said. “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.”
The divide between Democrats and Republicans
Biden's State of the Union and subsequent trips are viewed as a soft launch for his widely expected re-election bid, in which he intends to paint the GOP as a threat to Social Security and Medicare — the crown jewels of the Democratic-led New Deal and Great Society — seizing on decades of attempts to restructure, privatize or reduce long-term spending on the popular safety net programs.
Democrats seized on the issue in the 2022 midterms with some success, and now it moves to an even bigger stage.
“It’s a smart play for the near term in the debt limit fight, and it’s even a smarter play when we head to the 2024 re-elect,” said Scott Mulhauser, a former top Biden aide who has worked on campaigns and in government. “It moves voters, it moves seniors, it moves allegiances and alliances, and it resonates.”
The political fight means Washington is delaying a reckoning about how to resolve the long-term finances of the programs. Trustees' reports say Medicare’s trust fund is fully solvent through 2028 (after that, payments will be cut) and Social Security is solvent through 2035 (after that, scheduled benefits would reduce).
Biden’s remarks indicate that Democrats have ruled out compromises that they pursued during President Barack Obama’s first term to trim long-term benefits as a way to reduce the national debt. Those negotiations drew objections from the left and never materialized into an agreement. Since then, Democrats have turned away from potential cuts and rallied around raising revenues to expand retirement benefits.
It represents a growing divide with Republicans, who continue to rule out new taxes to finance the benefits and instead believe spending must be curtailed in the long run.
Biden has endorsed raising the payroll tax cap on upper earners to expand Social Security payments. He sought to expand Medicare benefits for dental, vision and hearing services, but that effort was blocked by a few centrists, mainly Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
'I'm sick of his lies'
“I have no idea what his motivation was but I’m sick of his lies,” Rep. Beth Van Duyne, R-Texas, who looked puzzled in the House chamber as Biden launched his attack on Republicans in his State of the Union speech.
“He has heard on more than enough occasions that Republicans are not looking to cut but looking to protect those programs. And I thought it was all fear-mongering on his part, and an effort to divert from his failed policies,” said Van Duyne, who sits on the Ways and Means Committee that oversees Social Security and Medicare.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who repeatedly yelled “Liar!” during that part of Biden’s speech, said afterward: “He had been lying about Republicans — saying that we were going to cut Social Security, cut Medicare. And I can tell you, I haven’t been in one single meeting in our conference where we even talked about that.”
White House spokesman Andrew Bates said in an email that protecting those programs “is core to President Biden’s top priority” and made it clear he won’t stop calling out plans to scale them back.
“A wide range of Republican lawmakers have endorsed severe cuts to Medicare and Social security benefits in the name of ‘fiscal responsibility,’” Bates said. “Complaining that the President is accurately shining a light on plans they don’t want their constituents to know about is very much not the defense they think.”
Mulhauser said it’s “rich” to see Republicans complain about Democrats using a tactic the GOP has often used: Elevating proposals by some in the opposing party and driving the contrast.
“This is similarly a fair fight,” he said. “And it’s particularly so when these Republican positions are codified, documented in print, introduced in legislation."
As Republicans insist that the programs are off the table in a debt limit bill to avert default this year, they face a conundrum: Leaving those costly programs untouched is inconsistent with the demands by some conservatives to balance the budget.
Biden’s move to highlight Social Security and Medicare has also raised tensions within the GOP, most notably between Scott and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., whose advisers blame the Florida Republican for hurting GOP candidates in the 2022 election.
“It’s just a bad idea," McConnell said Thursday of Scott's agenda. "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.”
Scott, who has stood by his agenda and accused Biden of “lying” about it, claimed Friday that McConnell was backing up the Democratic president.
“He’s backing up Biden again,” Scott said. “He doesn’t believe that we ought to have a plan.”