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Analysis | Breaking down the most controversial exchange between Biden and the GOP


It’s been clear for some time that Republican Party leaders weren’t too happy with an attempt by Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) to craft a high-profile agenda for the GOP. And in perhaps the most controversial part of President Biden’s State of the Union address Tuesday night came the moment they all feared from the start.

That moment may also prove important in the long-running, though stalling, GOP effort to reform, and possibly even reduce, federal entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security.

Let’s go through what Biden said, fact-check his claim, and evaluate the GOP pushback.

While claiming that Republicans have nothing to do with holding the upcoming debt ceiling debate “hostage” to their proposed cuts, Biden turned to Scott’s proposal, without naming the senator.

“Some of my Republican friends want to hold the economy hostage — I get it — unless I go along with their economic plans,” Biden said. “All of you back home should know what those plans are. Instead of letting the rich pay their fair share, some Republicans — some Republicans — want Medicare and Social Security gone.”

Immediately, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who was behind Biden, shook his head and said, “No.” Republicans in the room began expressing their displeasure with the charges.

In response, Biden deviated from his prepared remarks, repeatedly emphasizing that he had merely referred some Republicans. “I’m not saying it’s a majority.” He even admitted that “I don’t even think it’s a significant part of the lot”.

But it wasn’t enough to get sustained ridicule and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) who stood up and called Biden a “liar.”

Biden’s comments refer to part of Scott’s plan that states that “All federal legislation expires in 5 years. If a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again.” Scott didn’t specify Medicare and Social Security, but they were created by federal law and would seemingly disappear and require reauthorization every five years.

You could certainly accuse Biden of overselling the potential for such a plan to become law one day — Scott’s idea has been explicitly embraced by only a very small number of Republicans. And Democrats repeatedly mischaracterized the proposal during the 2022 campaign trail, claiming it would effectively end Social Security and Medicare. But stopping a program doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t be re-authorized and so its rights will end. However, Biden was more careful in how he summed it up.

Shortly after Scott proposed his plan, he got the proverbial stiff arm from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Noting that he, not Scott, was in charge of the Senate GOP agenda, McConnell added, “We will not have as part of my agenda a bill that raises taxes on half of the American people and the social security and Medicare within five years.”

As for other Republicans? Several of them broadly praised Scott for putting forward his ideas – though often without explicitly endorsing the plan. Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee, responded by saying, “Republicans like Senator @ScottforFlorida have real solutions to get us back on track.”

But some to have expressed support for Scott’s plan and similar ones. Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) said he was “on board” with Scott’s proposal. Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) has offered his own plan to subject Social Security and Medicare to annual congressional spending bills, rather than continue them as automatic entitlement programs.

(McConnell’s response to both Scott’s and Johnson’s plans reinforces the similarity between the two: When McConnell’s office was asked about Johnson’s, it simply pointed to McConnell’s rebuke of Scott’s.)

The fact that many Republicans promised to make cuts but couldn’t articulate exactly how has created a void that Scott was eager to fill—and one that his party wasn’t thrilled to see him fill.

Of course, the support of two or three GOP senators for such an idea is wholly insufficient to make it into law. McConnell made it clear that this has no chance of passing or even being put to a vote in the Senate. In that sense, Biden’s choice to highlight this in his State of the Union is a fairly transparent attempt to bombard the broader GOP with a policy proposal few of them supported.

Biden certainly could have chosen to discuss the actually viable proposals to change Medicare and Social Security and drastically cut spending — for example, some have broadly proposed raising the retirement age. But on this point, Republicans have conspicuously avoided putting pen to paper as Scott did. And they’ve been sending very mixed signals about what they could possibly do with those programs.

Another approach the president could have taken would be to note that it is virtually impossible to balance the budget — a professed goal of House Republicans and an area where the House Freedom Caucus got some concessions from McCarthy — without touching any rights programs. Biden could point out that the Republican Study Committee and others have proposed raising the retirement age for future beneficiaries. He was able to notice that President Donald Trump’s budgets proposed significant cuts to Medicare and Medicaid.

But instead, Biden went for the low-hanging fruit that Scott so graciously presented—and that leaders like McConnell quickly recognized as such.

(Scott said Wednesday morning his proposal was aimed at allcrazy new laws our congress has passed latelyand that he was not proposing to reduce rights. But that doesn’t quite answer what Biden said in his speech: Biden was only referring to the sunset, not cuts, and the rights seem to qualify under Scott’s broadly worded proposal.)

If nothing else, it resulted in some pretty stunning, high-profile rebuke of ideas like Scott’s (and arguably Johnson’s), in a way that’s likely to curb the GOP’s appetite that there might have been for changes in Medicare and to include social security in the burgeoning debt ceiling debate.

“So, folks, as we all seem to agree: Social Security and Medicare are off the books now, right?” said Biden.

Republicans in the room didn’t seem to know what to do, but an increasing number of them gradually rose and applauded.

“Okay,” Biden said. “We have unanimity!”

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