It's long been said that Social Security is the third rail of American politics — touch it, the warning goes, and you're dead. But despite that well-trafficked truism, a number of congressional Republicans are telegraphing their intent to do just that: risk political suicide by going after the governmental entitlement trifecta of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid as part of their budget negotiations with the Biden administration ahead of the looming debt ceiling deadline.
"If we really want to talk about the debt and spending, it's the entitlements programs," Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) told Fox Business host Stuart Varney in early January.
"If we're going raise the debt ceiling, we can't just raise it without focusing on some way to address the debt and the deficit," Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) told Axios, noting that Medicare should be changed to become "sustainable over time."
And speaking at a Washington Post live event in early December, GOP Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) mused that when it came to Social Security and entitlement reform, "can the debt limit present that opportunity? I think it can, but we'll see."
Even embattled House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Cali) signaled an openness at one time to potential entitlement cuts, telling Punchbowl News in October that he wouldn't "predetermine" whether they would be on the table during the upcoming debt ceiling negotiations.
Unsurprisingly, Democrats have leaped upon the entitlement cut chatter as a decisive line of attack against a Republican caucus still reeling from the historically dysfunctional speakers battle that kicked off the current legislative session.
More surprising, however, is the pushback coming from within the GOP itself, with former President Donald Trump leading the charge as he struggles to gain traction for his 2024 re-election bid.
There is, in fact, solid precedent to Trump's opposition to entitlement reform; in 2011, he blasted then-Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to end Medicare as a "death wish" — the opening salvo of what would become a years-long feud between the two, in which then-candidate Trump would ultimately blame Ryan for Mitt Romney's 2008 presidential defeat.
"Every single other candidate is going to cut the hell out of your Social Security ... remember the wheelchair being pushed over the cliff when you had Ryan chosen as your vice president?" Trump said during a 2016 election event. "That was the end of that campaign, by the way, when they chose Ryan. And I like him, he's a nice person, but that was the end of the campaign. I said, 'You've got to be kidding, because he represented cutting entitlements, etc, etc.' The only one that's not going to cut is me."
In spite of that campaign rhetoric, Trump's budget during his presidency did, in fact, release a budget with significant spending cuts on Medicare and Medicaid as the national deficit skyrocketed under his watch (his White House staff nevertheless made an admirable attempt at spinning his admission that "we'll be cutting" entitlements to claim otherwise).
Here, however, with his latest warning to fellow Republicans, Trump's insistence that the GOP not "cut a single penny from Medicare or Social Security" points to a broader schism within a party now stuck between the campaign poetry of fiscal responsibility and the governing prose of actual budgetary choices. On one side of that fracture line are the House Republicans eager to leverage the debt ceiling debate for their own agenda of domestic budget cuts, no matter the risk of economic doom should America default on its loans. On the other is Trump, still a (albeit not necessarily the) dominant force in conservative politics, who has essentially dictated what the GOP's spending priorities should and shouldn't be, and who could use the incident as a cudgel against his likely opponents for the party's presidential nomination (conversely, he will almost certainly demand credit should House Republicans ultimately back off their entitlement threats). In the middle, then, are Republicans still calibrating how much they can afford to stoke Trump's ire, while still appealing to his significant electoral base. In a way, it's a similar dynamic to the one which played out during the prolonged speaker's race, in which a core group of committed MAGA lawmakers rejected Trump's own call to back McCarthy to lead the House.
The question facing Republicans is whether it's more expedient to deliver on a long-held promise — no matter how wildly unpopular that actual delivery may be — and risk angering one of the most potent voices in the party, or simply accept the political realities of Washington's third rail, and find a way to retreat with some measure of dignity intact.