An odd thing happened at this week’s State of the Union: President Biden and congressional Republicans got into a skirmish about an issue over which, apparently, they completely agree. Neither party, it seems, wants to make changes to Social Security or Medicare during upcoming negotiations to raise the debt ceiling.
“Some Republicans want Social Security and Medicare to sunset,” Biden said, drawing a cacophony of boos from GOP lawmakers. The firebrand Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene stood up, gave him a thumbs down, and called him a “liar,” in what quickly became a viral moment. “That’s okay,” Biden retorted. “I enjoy conversion.”
The President may not have extracted as clear a concession from the opposing party as he claimed. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy told reporters last month that changes to those programs were off the table in talks to prevent the federal government from defaulting on its debts. Yet the President was not exactly elevating a fringe GOP idea. Democratic strategists and conservative policy analysts have since marveled at how Biden was able to prod GOP leaders into running away from a position that was for years championed by some of their leading lights, including former House Speaker Paul Ryan.
“The President did a masterful job of boxing Republicans in,” Jim Manley, a former senior aide to the late Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, tells TIME. “Democrats have been salivating at the chance of using this issue.”
Biden was referring directly to a plan released last year by Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, who led the party’s Senate campaign arm during the 2022 midterms elections. It called for sunsetting all federal programs every five years unless Congress explicitly votes to keep them going. Such a proposal could put expensive programs like Social Security and Medicare in danger of ending or shrinking. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has repeatedly denounced Scott’s proposal, which wasn’t promoted by any other major candidates.
But Scott wasn’t alone among Republicans in floating ideas that could lead to the paring back of federal entitlements. The Republican Study Committee, a quasi in-house think tank for the House GOP conference, unveiled a 2023 budget blueprint last year that would raise the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67 and the Social Security eligibility age from 65 to 69.
These ideas were deemed politically perilous enough that even former President Donald Trump intervened two weeks ago, as the debt ceiling fight was heating up. “Under no circumstances should Republicans vote to cut a single penny from Medicare or Social Security,” he said in a video posted on his social media platform Truth Social.
It’s a development that reflects a major shift from the 2010s, when Ryan, as a wonky Wisconsin lawmaker, made reforming the two programs an animating principle of his budget proposals. Those ideas made him enough of a GOP mainstay that Mitt Romney, the party’s presidential nominee in 2012, tapped Ryan to be his running mate. (After they lost, former Speaker John Boehner picked Ryan to chair the powerful House Ways and Means Committee in 2015.)
Yet the boisterous back-and-forth between Biden and congressional Republicans during his State of the Union speech suggests that the future of entitlement programs enacted in the 1930s under President Franklin Roosevelt will be a front-and-center issue in the 2024 elections.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, one of the leading potential challengers to Trump’s bid for the GOP presidential nomination, has previously floated privatizing social security and restructuring Medicare. As a congressman in 2014, he voted on measures that would have raised the retirement ages for both programs and cut Social Security benefits.
There are signs Democrats would try to weaponize that history against DeSantis if he can beat out Trump. In fact, Trump himself may try to do the same. Even so, it’s clear that Biden wants to position himself now as a reliable safeguard against any changes to the programs that millions of Americans rely on. The day after his State of the Union address, Biden traveled to Florida to double down on his message.
“He’s trying to position himself politically to be the savior of Social Security and Medicare,” says James Capretta, a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who has long advocated for overhauling entitlements. “Let’s be honest. That’s what he’s doing. It may work.”
To be sure, Republicans aren’t the only ones who have proposed big changes to Social Security, as independent analyses have long shown that the program’s spending has outpaced the committed revenue to pay for it. Former President Barack Obama released a budget in 2012 that was intended to improve the program’s finances by scaling back the annual increases in Social Security checks. Biden, for his part, as a Senator voted in 1983 in favor of a bipartisan bill to tax up to half of Social Security beneficiaries who were over a certain income threshold.
But over the last several years, the calls for phasing out or “reforming” those entitlements have primarily come from Republicans, including McConnell, Utah Senator Mike Lee, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, and Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson.
Some GOP insiders argue it’s a red herring to make an issue out of what these legislators said during previous Congresses if they are no longer pushing for those changes.
“Everyone said dumb sh-t 10 years ago,” Neil Chatterjee, a former McConnell aide, tells TIME. “What is the reality today?”
Chatterjee, who is now a lawyer focused on energy issues at the law firm Hogan Lovells, adds that the Republican Party shifted much of its thinking on entitlements since Trump remade the party in 2016. As a consequence, the GOP is no longer bent on slashing those programs. “It’s a much more populous working-class party. And I think there’s a feeling that their base is an older, more populous base, and they contributed to these programs and they don’t want to reform any of these programs anymore. I think this is a reflection of the new Republican coalition.”
Still, Biden has put Republicans on the defensive, in which they are now trying to disassociate from a position that many of them have previously held. Republicans have made clear that they will not propose cuts to Social Security and Medicare as part of a bargain to raise the debt ceiling. But Democrats like Manley see in Biden a shrewd pol who has positioned himself as a solid defender of these programs against political adversaries who have spent years trying to reform them.
“It’s very clear to me that the administration, and rightfully so, intends to make this a top-tier issue for the elections next year,” he says.
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