Why the GOP Squabble Over Social Security and Medicare Is About Power More Than Policy

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Inside the Beltway, there has been plenty of gleeful gloating among Democrats that their Republican rivals across the aisle seem to be once again engaged in a messy, public fight that pins the top GOP senator against one of his own. But the reality of this long-building so-called GOP Civil War is far more complicated—and, perhaps, slightly less toxic than it appears.

Still, as is typical, the advantage goes to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose sniping with Senator Rick Scott of Florida over whether the GOP really wants to cut Social Security and Medicare is actually about much more than that.

It was Scott who unveiled the partisan 31-page Plan to Rescue America last year while he led the GOP’s official Senate campaign arm. The most politically noxious piece of it was a proposal to sunset—aka end—Social Security and Medicare after five years if Congress doesn’t affirmatively say those programs merit continuation.

“Unfortunately, that was the Scott plan, that’s not a Republican plan,” McConnell told a Kentucky radio program last week after his colleagues booed a central tenet of it. Never one to let something slip, McConnell’s stiff arm of Scott was no accident at a moment when once again Scott’s idea suddenly was cast as GOP orthodoxy and not the brainchild of a super-rich lawmaker musing about fiscal responsibility. McConnell is many things, but driven by ego or emotion is not one of them.

President Joe Biden and his allies have used Scott’s plan to cast Republicans as threats to Social Security and Medicare. Last week, during the State of the Union, Biden slagged Republicans sitting before him without naming Scott, although the White House’s social media feed did so gleefully. In the House chamber, Republicans stood to object to Biden’s characterization of their beliefs and publicly committed not to touch the popular—and expensive—entitlement programs.

When Biden dropped into Florida two days later, he went directly after Scott, setting a trap for Republicans to further expose rifts in their comity. On every seat in the audience at the University of Tampa sat a two-page summary of Scott’s proposal on Social Security and Medicare.

For his part, McConnell initially seemed to add fodder to that intra-party squabble. Reacting to Scott’s resurgent plan last week, McConnell dryly said that any effort to tweak Social Security or Medicare is “just a bad idea. I think it will be a challenge for him to deal with this in his own re-election in Florida, a state with more elderly people than any other state in America.” The implicit gong was that McConnell’s orbit, which controls the party’s major donors, its most potent super PAC, and the official campaign arm of the Senate, might not dip a toe into Florida, leaving Scott on his own next year as he tries to win re-election in a state where one-in-five voters are over 65.

That was likely always going to be the case for Scott, a first-term Senator who spent $83 million—and had almost $32 million in outside help lashing his incumbent Democratic rival—to win a squeaker of an election in 2018. Four years later, Gov. Ron DeSantis cruised to a 19-point re-election victory, the widest margin in 40 years. On the same ballot, Sen. Marco Rubio carried the state by 16 points while running against a marquee Senate recruit. In other words, Florida is now so solidly red that Scott is likely to be just fine running again next year even without McConnell’s help.

That’s why the public squabbling between the two Republicans represents a power struggle more than a policy debate. Scott and McConnell have been at odds for months, with Scott adopting a do-not-intervene approach to nominees for the Senate during his two years running the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the official GOP campaign arm. The most recent cycle saw some clunker nominees cost McConnell a return to the majority. Scott blamed McConnell’s leadership style for the party’s lackluster showing and staged a long-shot challenge to McConnell for the Minority Leader post a few weeks back. Scott secured just 10 votes in support and one abstention in the first potential coup against McConnell rose to the top of the Senate GOP in 2007.

Scott was never going to be McConnell’s chosen heir, but his choice to so publicly defy McConnell cost him his seat on the Commerce Committee and laid the groundwork for the last few weeks’ hullabaloo. Scott’s spokesman last week dismissed McConnell’s criticism coldly: “Lol. Rick Scott knows how to win Florida a hell of a lot better than Mitch McConnell does.”

To be sure, the GOP infighting isn’t exactly helpful for the civilian observer of politics. There remain very real differences as to where the Republican Party points itself. (Chief election denier Kari Lake’s visit to Iowa this weekend, for instance, served as a reminder that a good chunk of the base still wrongly thinks Donald Trump is the rightful President of this country and that Lake actually won her race for Arizona Governor.) By again calling out Scott’s out-of-nowhere proposal from last year, McConnell is able to reassert his control over his chamber and quell any idea that he will tolerate further defections. Even though McConnell has terrible poll numbers—he has a lower favorability rating among Republicans than serial liar Rep. George Santos—he still has juice. Thwacking Scott only helps McConnell’s alpha status.

The latest Biden troll of the GOP is about far more than Social Security and Medicare. In fact, it’s about the future of the Republican Party—and seniors—for perhaps decades. The year started with Kevin McCarthy winning the House Speaker role after an embarrassing 15 rounds of balloting. Fissures emerged over committee assignments and exclusions, and there remains the unresolved question of whether Donald Trump is, in fact, the de facto leader of the modern Republican Party. And as the next White House race looms, it’s still not clear Republicans have actually absorbed the reality that their 2022 Election Day showing was historically weak if not damning.

Some in the party, though, have long been grousing that the GOP hasn’t done enough to address the long-term costs of Social Security and Medicare, the most expensive domestic programs on the U.S. books. McConnell has said he doesn’t want to make any cuts but is open to private savings accounts. As such, McConnell is unable to endorse Scott’s plans, but they aren’t as far afield as Republican objections at the State of the Union would suggest. Scott’s notions are seen as extreme, but they could help McConnell appear moderate. And, with other lawmakers looking for big bargains to strike in a divided Washington, it could at least open the door to talks—even if McConnell uses Scott’s face as a doorstop.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com