The GOP’s renewed (and dangerous) push to reform Medicare and Social Security

February 13, 2013

If Republicans thought Tuesday's State of the Union address offered them a chance to begin their political comeback, they picked a difficult issue on which to launch it.


House Speaker John Boehner, right, and VP Joe Biden. EPA photo.

In both Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) GOP response and Sen. Rand Paul's (R-Ky.) tea party response, the Republicans focused their messaging on the issue of entitlement reform.

"I would never support any changes to Medicare that would hurt seniors like my mother," Rubio said. "But anyone who is in favor of leaving Medicare exactly the way it is right now is in favor of bankrupting it."

Rubio said President Obama's proposals would do "nothing to save Medicare and Social Security."

Paul was more blunt, accusing the president of taking entitlement reform off the table altogether.

"Big government is not your friend," Paul said. "The President offers you free stuff, but his policies keep you poor."

Obama, in fact, did call for "modest" reforms to entitlements in his address, but he also cautioned against overhauling them in ways that would shift the burden of the drastic automatic cuts contained in the so-called "sequester" on to the backs of the poor and middle class.

"Now, some in this Congress have proposed preventing only the defense cuts by making even bigger cuts to things like education and job training, Medicare and Social Security benefits," Obama said. "That idea is even worse (than the sequester)."

At this point, the looming clash over entitlements is still in the realm of the hypothetical. None of the three men who spoke Tuesday pushed concrete proposals like raising the retirement age, means-testing Medicare beneficiaries or basically any actual policy proposals. But there was a significant difference in tone, with Republicans pushing the need for reforming and preserving entitlements and Obama urging caution.

The question from here is whether Republicans go whole-hog on the issue of entitlement reform as a way to avoid the sequester.

Poll after poll shows Americans of all political stripes balk at basically any major changes to programs like Medicare and Social Security -- which is why basically no changes ever get made to these programs.

In fact, when Mitt Romney was running against Obama last year, he disavowed the Medicare changes contained in the House GOP budget written by his running mate, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Rather than embrace the GOP reform, he sought to portray Obama as the candidate who had cut Medicare, noting the Medicare changes contained in Obama's health care bill (which also happened to be contained in Ryan's budget).

There's a reason for that: Republicans know that selling entitlement reform is very difficult.

The problem for the party is that entitlements are such a huge and growing portion of the federal budget. So when Republicans look to an alternative to the sequester, entitlements are one of few options.

And given the projected long-term cost of these programs, the conservative base demands action to rein them in.

The fact is, though, that entitlements remain very much a third rail of American politics, and any significant effort to reform them will be fraught with danger.

If the GOP does make a big push, it will be incumbent upon the likes of Rubio -- who noted his own family's reliance on Medicare benefits -- to revolutionize how the party messages the issue.

Rubio, in particular, began that process on Tuesday. But it's still a very tough sell.

Hagel needs 60 votes, but he's close: Chuck Hagel's nomination as Defense Secretary was recommended to the full Senate on Tuesday in a party-line vote by the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Hagel's nomination could be voted on as early as Thursday, though Republicans continue to threaten to block the vote -- at least temporarily.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has hinted that he might put a hold on Hagel's nomination, and Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin reports that Republicans will insist that Hagel get 60 votes required to confirm a Cabinet nominee -- though they're not calling it a filibuster.

The question from here is whether the GOP can prevent Hagel from getting 60 votes. Hagel appears to have all 55 Democrats and independents on-board, and two Republicans -- Sens. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) -- have said they will back Hagel.

CBS's Major Garrett also reports that Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) will vote for Hagel, leaving him just two votes shy of 60. And even Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who voted again Hagel in committee, hasn't ruled out supporting his former friend on the Senate floor.

Given there are already a few Republicans backing Hagel, it's not unreasonable to think that a few more might join them and put him over 60. Of course, future defectors would be labeled as the ones who put Hagel over the top and might risk some backlash by the conservative base.

Fixbits:

The four Democrats in the bipartisan Senate group working on immigration reform will meet with Obama on Wednesday.

"Read my lips: I'm not interested in 11th hour negotiation," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) says of the sequester, predicting that it will happen.

Democrats suggest they may push for the Buffet Rule as a replacement for the sequester cuts.

The Senate voted 78-22 on Tuesday to re-authorize the Violence Against Women Act.

Environmental groups are taking out a full-page ad in the Des Moines Register hitting New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) -- a potential presidential candidate -- for not standing against fracking.

Seven in 10 Americans agree with the Postal Service's move to stop Saturday postal delivery.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) says his New Jersey colleague, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) should not be forced to give up his gavel of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The New York Times editorial board has called on Menendez to do so.

Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa) says he's focused on his day job but will also consider a Senate run. He wouldn't put odds on the likelihood that he will run.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's (R) approval rating takes a hit after he signs a so-called "right to work" bill in his state.

Michael Bloomberg's super PAC has now spent more than $1.3 million against former congresswoman and NRA ally Debbie Halvorson (D-Ill.) in the Illinois special election to replace Jesse Jackson Jr. in the House.

Former congressman Asa Hutchinson gets a break in Arkansas GOP governor primary, as Lt. Gov. Mark Darr (R) says he won't run. Darr will instead consider a challenge to Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.).

Stephen Colbert will host a fundraiser for his sister, Elizabeth Colbert-Busch, who is running in the special election for Rep. Tim Scott's (R-S.C.) old House seat.

Former Iowa state House speaker Pat Murphy (D) will announce his candidacy for Senate candidate Rep. Bruce Braley's (D-Iowa) seat today, according to someone with knowledge of his plans.

Must-reads:

"Gun Debate on Capitol Hill Turns to Constitutional Issues" -- Jennifer Steinhauer, New York Times

"Florida – the state to watch over the next four years" -- Mark Murray, NBC News

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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