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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Scott drops Social Security from plan as GOP retreats from entitlement cuts

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) at the Capitol in Washington, Dec. 7, 2022. Scott wrote in the Washington Examiner on Friday, Feb. 17, 2023, he was amending his party policy agenda to exempt Social Security and Medicare from his proposal to terminal all federal programs every five years and subject them to congressional review.

By Carl Hulse

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., finally recognized last week what leading figures in his party had been telling him for a year: Most Republicans no longer wish to discuss cutting Social Security and Medicare as a way to balance the federal budget and bring down the soaring debt.

After decades of talk of scaling back the popular — and increasingly expensive — federal entitlement programs for older Americans, Republicans have for now abandoned that approach. It is an acknowledgment of the political risks of shrinking benefits relied on by millions of voters.

The capitulation by Scott, who Friday relented and explicitly walled off Social Security and Medicare from his proposal to terminate all federal programs every five years and subject them to congressional review, was the latest evidence that Republicans would be looking elsewhere for savings in a coming showdown with the White House and congressional Democrats.

The hardening position of the party will significantly affect the dynamic around seeking spending cuts in exchange for raising the federal debt limit later this year by focusing much of the scrutiny instead on domestic spending, foreign aid and other safety-net programs such as Medicaid and food stamps.

The shift comes as it has grown increasingly clear that Social Security and Medicare are unsustainable in their current form; new forecasts from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released this week showed spending growth on the programs rapidly outpacing the growth in federal tax revenues over the next decade, as a wave of baby boomers reach retirement age and begin to tap their benefits.

“The political rhetoric surrounding the issue is completely at odds with the reality,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Center for a Responsible Budget. “If we do nothing, there will be brutal across-the-board cuts in Social Security benefits and to providers in Medicare.”

It is a sharp reversal for Republicans who previously have regularly pursued “privatization” of both Social Security and Medicare to reduce federal red ink by shifting more responsibility and costs on to those covered by the programs — efforts that largely failed after running into a political buzz saw. The evolution in the longtime position has been accelerated by warnings from Donald Trump, the former president and current presidential candidate, that Republicans should not touch either program — and that they will hear from him if they do.

Scott said the agenda he issued early last year, as chair of the Senate Republican campaign arm, was never intended to propose cuts in the popular retirement programs, although he did not include any carveout for either in his plan.

Scott has argued that his ideas were purposefully mischaracterized by President Joe Biden as well as Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader, as cutting Social Security and Medicare, when his goal was to protect them.

Still, in a tacit concession that he had erred, Scott wrote in an opinion essay in The Washington Examiner on Friday that he was amending the proposal he made as chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee to exclude “Social Security, Medicare, national security, veterans’ benefits and other essential services” from the requirement for a five-year review.

McConnell disavowed the Scott proposal from the start, saying it was Scott’s idea alone and did not represent the view of Senate Republicans. McConnell reiterated that position this week when he was asked about his feud with Scott over the proposal.

“As you recall, there was some confusion last year about what the agenda of the Republican Senate might be if we were in the majority,” McConnell told reporters. “And I made it quite clear that as the likely majority leader, I had hoped at that time, Social Security and Medicare were not on our agenda, period.”

But Scott’s internally elected position as chair of the campaign committee gave the proposal heft since his role was to advise and bolster Republican Senate candidates. McConnell and others have said the proposal gave Democrats political ammunition that hurt Republicans’ chances for Senate seats in Nevada and Pennsylvania, among other places.

Social Security has long been considered the “third rail” of American politics, with the risk of severe political harm to those who would dare touch it. President George W. Bush in 2005 proposed letting younger workers direct some of their Social Security payments into private investment accounts, but Republicans were divided and Democrats united against it. The plan fizzled and Democrats regained control of Congress the next year. Other Republican-led efforts have met a similar fate and prompted similar political fallout.

Given the slim odds of success, some fiscal conservatives welcomed the strategic shift away from revisiting entitlement programs, saying it would clear the way for a debate around spending cuts that could be attainable.

“It’s such a necessary corrective to the debate we have had,” said Russ Vought, a former Trump administration budget director and head of the arch-conservative Center for Renewing America. “We’re not going to get it. So we are going to come away with no savings. It would be a political challenge and we come out with some commission to study it.” And, he added, “Republicans would be bloodied by it.”

Though Scott insisted he was never interested in cutting the programs, he said as recently as this week that it would be irresponsible not to look at all federal spending given the nation’s mounting debt. He reiterated that point in the opinion essay.

“I proposed that we sunset federal programs every five years so that Congress is forced to review ridiculous spending programs, analyze whether they’re working or not and reauthorize the ones that are,” Scott wrote. “It’s common sense to every single person in the country except the politicians, bureaucrats and lobbyists who get rich off the government gravy train that’s led to $32 trillion in debt.”

He accused Biden and McConnell of playing “shallow gotcha politics” in attacking his proposal.

“I have never supported cutting Social Security or Medicare, ever,” Scott wrote. “To say otherwise is a disingenuous Democrat lie from a very confused president. And Senator Mitch McConnell is also well aware of that.”

While the position of congressional Republicans seems set against exploring Social Security and Medicare cuts, not all in the party are ready to give up on exploring ways to overhaul the programs.

As she began her presidential campaign this week, Nikki Haley, a former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador, said “you have to look at entitlements,” though she also said Americans must get the benefits they were promised. Former Vice President Mike Pence, on Fox News, also raised the idea of letting younger workers invest some employment taxes in private accounts — a program similar to the failed Bush initiative.

The decision to sideline the benefit programs in the budget debate worries some, given that the programs are unsustainable in their current trajectory and will need adjustments.

“Are we just going to lie to the American public and say Social Security and Medicare will be fine if you don’t do anything with them?” asked Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. “The longer we wait, the more dramatic the fix will be. It is the driver of the debt.”

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