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Republicans say they won't cut Social Security. So why does it keep coming up?

President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union speech to a joint session of Congress, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023
J. Scott Applewhite
/
AP
President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union speech to a joint session of Congress, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023

There's a saying that Social Security is the third rail of American politics.

That still holds true.

Just look at the fallout from President Biden's State of the Union address, in which he accused some Republicans — "not a majority" — of wanting to cut Social Security and Medicare.

It enraged Republicans, but Biden achieved what he wanted in his moments of sparring with them, two things:

  • get members of the right to heckle and shout, making him appear above the fray and reasonable to create a clear contrast and 
  • make it look like he got Republicans on the record in a high-profile setting to agree not to cut the entitlements. 
  • The nation's debt ceiling needs to be raised by June or the county will default on its debt. Republicans, since the rise of the Tea Party, have pushed for spending cuts to offset those increases. That is a looming fight, as House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has shown little ability to corral some of the more vocal, right-wing members of his conference.

    And with only a four-seat majority, getting a deal on the debt ceiling will be made all the more difficult. McCarthy said cuts to the programs are "off the table." But Republicans also largely refuse to look at cuts to defense spending. And balancing the budget – and tackling a ballooning federal debt – can't be done by cutting discretionary spending alone.

    Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Feb. 26, 2022, in Orlando, Fla.
    John Raoux / AP
    /
    AP
    Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Feb. 26, 2022, in Orlando, Fla.

    A plan put forward by Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, who headed the committee in charge of electing Republicans to the Senate, called for sunsetting all federal programs every five years.

    Here's some of what the Rescue America plan says:

  • "Eliminate federal programs that can be done locally. Any government function that can be handled locally should be."
  • "All federal legislation sunsets in 5 years. If a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again."
  • Again, that's "all federal programs."

    That language gave Biden an opening for the attack.

    The plan has been derided by Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, who seemed more than happy to throw Scott under the bus.

    "That's not a Republican plan. That was the Rick Scott plan," McConnell said on a talk radio show in Kentucky this week, adding of Scott, "It's 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."

    Scott has said cutting the entitlement programs wasn't his intent in the plan, called the charge "false" and a "lie" and accused Biden of having proposed similar things about federal programs in the past.

    "In 1975, he has a bill, a sunset bill," Scott said on CNN of Biden when he was a freshman senator. "It says, it requires every program to be looked at freshly every four years, not just cost but worthiness."

    [Republicans] all raised their hand. So guess what? We accomplished something. Unless they break their word. There are going to be no cuts in Medicare, Social Security.

    In Biden's long history in Washington, he's said a lot of things — sometimes contradictory to his current position as president.

    "The president ran on protecting Medicare and Social Security from cuts, and he reiterated that in the State of the Union," White House Press Secretary Karine Jean Pierre said this week. "He's been very clear these past couple of years. ... A bill from the 1970s is not part of the president's agenda."

    But there are reasons why the narrative that Republicans want to cut Social Security and Medicare sticks. Look at recent history — President George W. Bush tried to privatize Social Security, former House Speaker Paul Ryan's budget proposed sweeping changes to Medicare, and even though former President Trump largely tabled serious talk of entitlement cuts, his budget did call for cuts to some aspects of Social Security and Medicaid.

    "When I pointed out that some Republicans are talking about eliminating Medicare, they said, 'No, no, no,' " Biden said in an interview on PBS NewsHour the day after the State of the Union address. "I said, 'Oh, OK. That means all of you are for supporting Medicare? Everybody raise your hand.' They all raised their hand. So guess what? We accomplished something. Unless they break their word. There are going to be no cuts in Medicare, Social Security."

    How Republicans handle themselves in the next year could determine the depth of what kind of foil Biden has in this group during his expected run for president — as the fight for which party is most in touch with the American people plays out.

    Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.