Administration

White House turns talk of Medicare, Social Security cuts against GOP

The White House is turning the tables on House Republican lawmakers when it comes to conservative-led spending proposals that Democrats warn could mean cuts to crucial programs like Medicare and Social Security. 

The Biden administration is already building on a strategy it deployed during the midterm election season in which it highlighted talk from multiple GOP congressional lawmakers about how they plan to use their new House majority to consider cuts to entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare.

It’s also putting a spotlight on the possibility of military spending cuts by Republicans in an effort to balance federal spending and reduce the national debt.

The Biden administration has made clear it won’t go along with such proposals, framing Republicans as the party that wants to defund the military and threaten social welfare programs.

“They are going to try to cut Social Security and Medicare. It could not be clearer,” White House chief of staff Ron Klain tweeted Monday, sharing a clip of Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) saying on Fox Business Network that major spending cuts would likely require changes to entitlement programs.

Strategists and White House officials believe that the possibility of Republicans holding the debt ceiling hostage in exchange for spending cuts is both economically dangerous and a political loser for the GOP.

The looming fight over spending cuts is in many ways a repeat of the messaging battle that unfolded ahead of November’s midterm elections. 

President Biden and Democrats warned in the closing weeks of the campaign that popular programs like Medicare and Social Security were at risk under a GOP majority. Republicans, meanwhile sought to argue government spending should be reined in without outright committing to cutting entitlement programs.

When it came to the Speakership battle, seven hard-line Republicans included requests to cap spending as part of their many demands last month of now-Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

“We must commit to not raising the debt ceiling without a concrete plan to cap spending and operate under a budget that balances in 10 years or less— and hold to it,” Reps. Scott Perry (Pa), Chip Roy (Texas), Dan Bishop (N.C.), Andrew Clyde (Ga.) and others wrote.

The Republican Study Committee’s fiscal 2023 model federal budget included increasing the Social Security eligibility age to reflect longevity. The committee argued that the adjustment would continue the gradual increase of the retirement age, noting that full retirement was raised to 67 in 2022.

The model budget also included a proposal to align “Medicare’s eligibility age with the normal retirement age for Social Security and then indexing this age to life expectancy.”

But some Republicans are pushing back on the idea that balancing the budget would include cuts to Social Security and Medicare, just as many conservatives distanced themselves from a proposal by Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) last year to put funding for those programs up for a vote every five years.

House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) said on Sunday that while Republicans want to balance the budget and make spending cuts, those cuts would include “every area of state government except Social Security and Medicare.”

That hasn’t stopped Democrats from warning that their GOP counterparts could cut Medicare and Social Security, which benefit seniors, a significant voting bloc in just about any election. 

“I can’t imagine a less persuasive case to the American people than, ‘Let me hollow out Medicare or I’ll set off an economic bomb that kills millions of jobs overnight,’” one Democratic strategist said.

Democrats have also suggested that concessions made by McCarthy could also mean cuts to the Pentagon, though there appears to be disagreement among conservatives about whether those are in play.

“This push to defund our military in the name of politics is senseless and out of line with our national security needs,” White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said in a statement.

The White House has said President Biden is demanding a clean vote on the debt limit and is not willing to negotiate otherwise.

“I’ve been very clear on this. Congress is going to need to raise the debt limit without conditions. And it’s just that simple,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said this week. “Attempts to exploit the debt ceiling as leverage will not work. There will be no hostage-taking.” 

Any fight on the debt limit could also put the president in a bad spot politically, especially at a time of continued high inflation. 

Josh Bivens, the director of research at the Economic Policy Institute, said that not raising the debt ceiling could lead to spending cuts but making concessions to raise it could as well, based on Republicans’ demands.

“My take is that if we hit the debt ceiling, and the House refused to raise it, the implications of adhering to the debt limit would be incredibly dire that the Biden admin just couldn’t do it,” he said, adding that a default would lead to “mammoth cuts to other outlays.”

Bivens warned that Biden agreeing to Republicans’ conditions would be disastrous, citing the 2011 debt limit negotiations.

“But, the implications of agreeing to huge austerity as the price of raising it would also be dire — the 2011 debt ceiling showdown is easily the single biggest reason why the recovery from the Great Recession was so anemic,” he added.

Former President Obama came close to caving to some Republicans’ demands for cuts in 2011 when negotiating with a GOP-controlled House, led by then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), to prevent a default that summer. 

Boehner insisted that the debt ceiling hike must be accompanied by spending reductions within the 10-year budget window. Meanwhile, the then-Tea Party wing of House Republicans demanded deep spending cuts through programs like Social Security and Medicare as a precondition for raising the debt ceiling. 

Obama ended up proposing a deal that included cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — which infuriated his liberal base — in exchange for tax hikes. But the deal fell apart when Boehner’s right-flank rejected any tax hikes. The resulting deal, the Budget Reduction Act, featured a combination of debt ceiling increases, to appease Democrats, and automatic spending cuts, to win the support of Republicans.

Now, concessions that McCarthy agreed on to win the gavel provided a preview of the fraught negotiations to come over basic government responsibilities like paying its debts. A provision of the new House rules requires a separate vote on hiking the debt limit. 

“If in order to raise the debt ceiling there’s major cuts in entitlement spending, Republicans are doomed,” said Jim Kessler, a co-founder of centrist think tank Third Way. 

Mike Lillis and Emily Brooks contributed.

Tags Biden administration House GOP Joe Biden medicare social security

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