As lawmakers approach a looming debt ceiling deadline, the fight over what to do about entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security has continued to play out across party lines.
Republicans have demanded commitments on spending cuts from Democrats in exchange for raising the debt limit but have said entitlement programs are not on the chopping block.
President Biden and Democrats have still sought to frame the GOP desire for spending slashes as a move to attack Medicare and Social Security. On the current trajectories, funding for Medicare is expected to hit a shortfall in 2028 with Social Security following in 2032.
Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid currently make up nearly half of the entire federal budget, with a total annual price tag of $2.7 trillion.
Here is where the debate in the Capitol on the future of the programs stands.
A scattered Republican message
An array of policy options have been floated by GOP lawmakers in both the House and Senate on what to do about the future of entitlement programs. The options have ranged from not touching the programs at all to raising age requirements and sunsetting the programs on a regular basis, which would require reapproval from Congress.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) made waves last year when he released his 12-point “Rescue America” plan that originally proposed sunsetting all federal legislation after five years, making Congress examine whether the law is “worth keeping.”
But after taking intense heat from Democrats and some in his own party, Scott amended his plan to make “specific exceptions of Social Security, Medicare, national security, veterans benefits, and other essential services.”
Other policy options floated by Republicans include a plan from the Republican Study Committee, which comprises more than 75 percent of the House GOP conference, to raise the age for individuals to qualify for Social Security and Medicare.
Other prominent Republicans including former Vice President Pence have advocated for a partial privatization of Social Security. “I think we can replace the New Deal programs with a better deal,” he said in an interview earlier this year.
But the party’s leadership in Congress has revealed relatively little about its plans for the future of Social Security and Medicare.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) have both said that the entitlement programs are off the table in negotiations on the debt ceiling, but they have avoided specifics on how they plan to achieve their desired spending cuts.
Democrats position themselves as protectors
Biden has led the charge in Democratic efforts to cast themselves as protectors of the entitlement programs in the face of what they characterize as GOP threats.
Democrats and the White House leaned on the framing as a strategy ahead of the midterms, warning against what a Republican majority might mean for the 65 million Americans who rely on the Social Security and Medicare benefits.
Republicans have insisted that their proposals to keep the programs solvent are not cuts, but the debate largely come down to what constitutes a cut.
Democrats have maintained that they do not want to touch Social Security or Medicare at all, and Biden has proposed taxing the wealthy to help shore up the programs — which has little chance of gaining traction among Republicans.
The president’s budget proposal seeks to increase the Medicare tax rate on earned and unearned income above $400,000 from the current 3.8 percent to 5 percent.
“This modest increase in Medicare contributions from those with the highest incomes will help keep the Medicare program strong for decades to come,” he wrote in a New York Times op-ed.
Biden’s budget proposal doesn’t delve into detail about plans to keep Social Security afloat.
Biden leans into messaging ahead of 2024
In his State of the Union speech last month, Biden prompted heckling from Republican lawmakers when he accused some in the GOP of trying to target the federal entitlement programs as part of spending cuts.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) yelled “liar” at the president’s remarks.
He played off the dissent, quipping, “So folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now, right?”
The White House has targeted Scott with its most stinging criticism, calling the Florida senator the national poster-child for Republicans attacks on Medicare and Social Security benefits.
Scott struck back after Biden’s SOTU speech, calling for the president to resign over “lies about Republicans” trying to cut the programs.
The attacks against Republicans over the programs have appeared as part of a broader strategy to depict the GOP as extreme as Biden prepares for a possible reelection run in 2024.
Recent polling has reaffirmed Social Security and Medicare’s popularity, even as many Americans lean toward reigning in government spending overall.
Biden has also sought to highlight the House Freedom Caucus, the conservative group that includes Greene and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), to cast a starker contrast between the parties in their overall vision for the country ahead of 2024.
The White House blasted the caucus’ budget proposal as a “five-alarm fire,” and Biden has argued the plan would slash spending other than defense by 25 percent across the board, though the group has contested that claim.
Republicans try to flip the script
While the GOP has fended off attacks from Democrats, Republicans have also sought to turn the debate on their opposition, accusing Democrats of lacking their own vision for keeping the programs afloat.
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) grilled Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen earlier this month on the administration’s plan to shore up Social Security.
“Of the $4.5 trillion in taxes he has proposed, not a dime is going to shore up Social Security,” Cassidy said at a Senate hearing.
Yellen responded that Biden “cares very deeply,” before Cassidy interjected to ask for the president’s plan to extend solvency for Social Security.
Yellen said that Biden “stands ready” to work with Congress on the matter, but Cassidy called the statement a “lie,” adding that he and other senators had unsuccessfully tried to meet with the president on the issue.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told The Hill earlier this month that Congress needed “presidential leadership” to secure the programs in the long term, saying Biden is “not doing anything.”
Biden has shot back that GOP proposals would only undermine the programs.
“Only in Washington can people claim that they are saving something by destroying it,” he wrote in his Times op-ed.
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