WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden engaged in something of a live negotiation with congressional Republicans during his State of the Union address on Tuesday night — and the two sides even seemed to agree.
First, Biden infuriated Republicans by accusing them of supporting an extreme proposal that would jeopardize Social Security and Medicare. Republicans roared “no” in response, and at least one lawmaker yelled, “liar.”
Biden then veered off his prepared remarks.
“So folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now, right? They’re not to be touched?” he said.
Both sides of the chamber applauded, and Biden gave a thumbs-up as several Republicans joined Democrats in standing.
“All right, we got unanimity!” Biden said. Moments later, he asked lawmakers to stand again to show they wouldn’t cut Medicare or Social Security, and just about everyone stood.
Biden ad-libbed some more: “I will not let Medicare be taken away, not today, not tomorrow, not ever,” he said. “But apparently, that will not be a problem.”
Though he was riffing in real-time, it’s possible the president and Republicans are on the same page ― but a lot depends on the meaning of the word “cut” and how much weight one gives to past GOP positions.
Republicans have suggested since last year that they would demand major spending cuts in exchange for lifting a legal limit on how much money the federal government can borrow to pay its bills. And they did not rule out reforming so-called “entitlement” programs, which they have always complained owe more money to retirees than the country supposedly can afford to pay.
But for the past two weeks, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has made definitive statements that Republicans “won’t touch” Social Security or Medicare as part of the debt ceiling standoff and that the programs are “off the table.” Following Tuesday’s speech, several House Republicans echoed that sentiment to HuffPost.
“There’s not going to be any cuts to Social Security or Medicare benefits,” Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.) said. “[Biden] has been driving a false narrative on that. And I think we refuted it pretty well last night.”
It’s not as if Biden invented the idea that Republicans want changes to the popular retirement programs. In his remarks, Biden pointed to a proposal by Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) that would “sunset” all federal laws every five years, meaning Congress would have to continuously reauthorize everything ― including Social Security and Medicare.
Few Republicans support Scott’s proposal, and they were annoyed that Biden tied them to it. But Biden could have used other material. Last year the Republican Study Committee, a group of policy-focused GOPers, outlined a federal budget that would cut entitlement spending partly by raising the eligibility ages for Social Security and Medicare. Last fall, several Republicans who are now committee chairmen said the debt limit should be tied to entitlement reform. Last month, far-right lawmakers who resisted supporting McCarthy’s speaker bid said they wanted him to promise a vote on a balanced budget.
“The only way you’re going to get a balanced budget is to make cuts,” one of those lawmakers, Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), said at the time. When HuffPost asked if Social Security should be targeted, Norman said, “Everything is in that pot.”
But Norman said Wednesday that we’re now in a different context: “We’re not going to be cutting Social Security, that’s just a red herring.”
Democrats seem unpersuaded. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said it meant nothing that Republicans stood up and applauded the idea of not cutting Social Security.
“All of the evidence is that they want to do things like increase the retirement age. That is cutting Social Security,” Jayapal said. “But they’re in a box because it’s highly unpopular.”
When Republicans say they oppose benefit cuts, there’s an important caveat – they’re often referring to cuts that would affect current retirees or people near retirement, such as Americans older than age 54. But even though it would reduce spending, Republicans say that raising the retirement age for future retirees shouldn’t count as a cut, that it’s more of a technical, abstract change.
“I think most of us talking about cuts, we’re talking about benefit cuts that people who are currently using those dollars to buy important medications and heat their homes and pay their bills,” Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.). “But those are people with whom we have made commitments, so we need to own up to those commitments. I do think we need to be willing to talk long-term. If life expectancies go up 20 years, what does that mean for what the appropriate retirement age is?”
There seems to be an increasing recognition among House Republicans that they’ll need to settle for modest policy victories in the debt ceiling standoff, given that Democrats control the Senate and the White House and Biden has been bludgeoning them relentlessly over Social Security.
Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.), chair of the Republican Study Committee, said lawmakers were coalescing around the idea of a commission that could make nonbinding recommendations about how Congress could improve the long-term solvency of Social Security and Medicare. (An idea the White House has described as “death panels.”)
“The reality is, having a commission on Social Security and Medicare to make sure they’re still there for everybody out there,” Hern said, “we owe the American people that.”