Republicans are pushing for changes to Social Security and Medicare
WASHINGTON — Republicans in Congress, eyeing a victory in the midterm elections that could hand them control of the House and Senate, have accepted plans to cut federal spending on Social Security and Medicare, including cutting benefits for some retirees and raising the retirement age. pension for both safety net programs.
Prominent Republicans are billing the moves as necessary to rein in government spending, which has grown under both Republican and Democratic presidents over the past few decades and then increased as the Trump and Biden administrations unleashed trillions of dollars in economic aid during the pandemic.
Republican leaders, who would decide what legislation the House and Senate would consider if their party wins control of Congress, did not say specifically what, if anything, they would do with the programs.
Still several influential Republicans have signaled a new willingness to push for Medicare and Social Security spending cuts as part of future budget negotiations with President Biden. Their ideas include raising the age to collect Social Security benefits to 70 from 67 and requiring many older Americans to pay higher premiums for their health insurance. The ideas are marketed as a way to narrow government spending to existing programs set to consume an ever-increasing share of the federal budget in the coming decades.
The fact that Republicans are talking openly about cutting the program has emboldened Democrats in the final weeks of the midterm campaign. Mr. Biden made Social Security and Medicare a late addition to his final economic message, and Democratic candidates bombarded voters with a barrage of ads claiming Republicans would cut programs and deny seniors the benefits they counted on for retirement.
Mr. Biden has repeatedly said he will not agree to cuts to Social Security, which provides pensions and disability benefits 66 million Americans, or Medicare, which provides health insurance for about 64 million people. He also accused all Republicans of putting both programs on the chopping block, based on possible outcomes of proposals put forward by two Republican senators, which party leaders did not accept.
“You’ve been paying social security all your life. You deserve it. Now these guys want to take it away,” Mr. Biden said during the course visiting Hallandale Beach, Fla., on Tuesday. “Who the hell do they think they are? Excuse my language.”
The state of affairs in the 2022 midterm elections
Election day is Tuesday, November 8.
Former President Barack Obama, who campaigned in Wisconsin last week for the state’s Democratic Senate candidate, Mandela Barnes, blasted Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican, over his plans for legacy programs. Obama blamed Mr. Johnson for supporting tax breaks for the wealthy included in the Republican tax cut bill of 2017, along with spending proposals that Obama said threatened the future of Social Security.
America’s retirees “had long hours and sore backs and bad knees to get that Social Security,” Mr. Obama said. “And if Ron Johnson doesn’t understand that — if he understands the tax breaks for private jets more than he understands making sure that older people who have worked all their lives can retire with dignity and respect — he’s not a person who thinks about you and he knows you and sees you, and he shouldn’t be your senator from Wisconsin.”
Mr. Johnson proposed that Social Security and Medicare be subject to annual spending bills in Congress rather than essentially operating on autopilot as they do now. That would leave the programs vulnerable to Washington’s frequent and tense debates over government funding, making it harder for retirees to count on a steady flow of benefits.
Still, Mr. Johnson is not in a leadership position, and it is unclear whether his ideas — or any of the more aggressive proposals floated by those in his own party — will find buy-in among Republican leaders. This week, said Mr Obama “lied” about his proposal and that he never called for cuts to Social Security.
Mr. Biden and other Democrats have also criticized a plan by Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the Republican Senate campaign chairman, to put nearly all federal spending programs up for a renewal vote every five years. Like Mr. Johnson’s plan, it would make Medicare and Social Security more vulnerable to budget cuts.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said this year that a bill to end those programs every five years “will not be part of the agenda of the Republican majority in the Senate.”
Still, the fact that key Republicans are openly pushing for spending cuts to Social Security and Medicare — or refusing to rule them out — is a break from former President Donald J. Trump, who campaigned on a promise to keep the programs intact.
Several conservative Republicans vying to lead key House economic committees have publicly suggested they would support efforts to change eligibility for safety net programs. The conservative House Republican Study Committee, poised to take a position of influence if the party claims a majority, has issued a detailed plan that would raise the retirement age for both programs and cut Social Security benefits for some higher-earning retirees. The plan would raise premiums for many seniors and create a new marketplace where the government’s Medicare plan competes with a private alternative, in what many Democrats call a partial privatization of the program.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, who is in line for House Speaker if his party wins control, he told Punchbowl News last month he would not “predetermine” whether cuts to Social Security and Medicare will be part of the debt limit negotiations. Those comments suggest that, unlike past negotiations, Republicans may demand future program cuts to raise the U.S. borrowing limit and avoid a national debt default. Mr. McCarthy later told CNBC that he had not talked about the programs and that he was committed to “strengthening” them, even though he had he did not provide details.
When asked if Mr. McConnell supported any changes to the program if Republicans win a majority, aides pointed only to his specific comments about Mr. Scott’s plan.
With Mr. Biden in the White House, Republicans have little chance of securing changes to either program.
Democratic candidates and outside groups supporting them spent $100 million nationwide this election cycle on ads that mention Social Security or Medicare, according to AdImpact data. Almost half of that spending has come since the beginning of October.
“Far-right extremists are abolishing pensions,” says the narrator an ad targeting Cassy Garcia, a Republican seeking to unseat Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat, in the hotly contested Texas district. “They’re going to cut Medicare and Social Security — the benefits we’ve been paying for with every paycheck.”
Republicans have campaigned much less on the programs, spending about $12 million this cycle on ads mentioning them. Republican candidates have largely embraced repealing the Inflationary Reduction Act, which Mr. Biden signed into law in August and which cuts prescription drug costs for seniors on Medicare. Some candidates have begun to push back against Democratic attacks on Social Security and Medicare.
In a recent ad, Don Bolduc, a Republican challenging Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-New Hampshire, said he would not “cut Social Security and Medicare for older Americans,” although it remains unclear whether he will cut benefits for future retirees. Mr. Bolduc spoke in favor of privatizing Medicare in August, Politico published this fall.
Democrats and Republicans largely agree that Congress will need to ensure the program’s solvency over the next decade. Spending on programs is projected to increase over the next decade as more baby boomers retire. Trustees of the Social Security and Medicare Trusts estimated to be a key fund for Medicare will run out of money in 2028, and the Social Security trust fund will be insolvent in 2034, which could lead to benefit cuts if Congress doesn’t act to avoid them.
In the 2020 campaign, Mr. Biden proposed an increase in the payroll tax on high earners to help fund Social Security while making the program’s benefits more generous for many workers. He put that plan on the back burner in his first two years in office as he pushed a broad economic agenda that included new spending on infrastructure, low-emissions energy, health care and advanced manufacturing. Republicans generally oppose Mr. Biden’s tax hike.
This week, Mr. Biden and The White House Twitter feed boasted that the president handed out a big boost in Social Security checks to retirees this year. That increase is a cost-of-living adjustment — and the result of prices rising faster than they have in four decades, a rate of inflation that has hurt Democrats in the midterms.
Fiscal hawks said this week that Mr. Biden’s attempts to use Social Security and Medicare against Republicans in the midterms would only slow efforts to shore up the programs.
“This is clearly stirring the pot at election time,” said Maya MacGuineas, chairwoman of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget in Washington. “Changes desperately need to be made to programs to ensure solvency – politicians may disagree on what changes should be made, but not whether they should be made. It’s very disappointing to hear a president who knows better resort to fear mongering instead of using his platform to help bring about needed change.”
Emily Cochrane, Margot Sanger-Katz and Peter Baker contributed to the reporting.
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