The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As midterms near, Democrats accuse GOP of plotting to cut Medicare, Social Security

”There’s been a bipartisan reluctance to tackle entitlement changes because of the popularity of those programs,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said earlier this week. He’s shown on Wednesday in Washington. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Democrats issued warnings Wednesday about the peril Republicans pose to Medicare and Social Security, accusing the GOP of plotting to cut critical safety net programs to close a budget deficit of their own making.

“A vote for Republican candidates in this election is a vote to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid,” argued Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).

Van Hollen and other Democrats pounced on comments from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in which the top Senate Republican blamed social programs for the growing deficit and said he hoped Congress would tackle spending on them “at some point here.”

The Democrats’ alarm bells about deficits, which are reaching $1 trillion annually, came three weeks ahead of midterm elections that will decide control of Congress. President Trump himself expressed new concern about government spending Wednesday, telling members of his Cabinet that they should plan to cut 5 percent from their agencies’ budgets while offering few details except to say the Pentagon budget would largely be spared. As reporters looked on, Trump promised the cuts will “have a huge impact.”

President Trump told Cabinet members they must cut budgets by 5 percent, saying, "One penny, every year, after four or five years, country's in good shape." (Video: The Washington Post)

Congress would have to approve the spending cuts, and lawmakers have rejected the president’s past budgets. But Trump’s push represents a recent refocusing on spending and the deficit. Trump has been meeting with senior advisers about the budget in recent days and trying to formulate a budget strategy.

A report from the White House budget office and the Treasury Department Monday showed the deficit had grown 17 percent last year to $779 billion, with projections that it would eclipse $1 trillion annually by 2020.

Elsewhere in the country the nation’s budget deficit ricocheted through the closing stretch of midterm campaigns in a different way, as Democrats in state after state seized on McConnell’s remarks to renew their case about what they’re casting as a dire GOP threat to voters’ health care and financial security.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) made a name for himself as a deficit hawk, but backed a tax plan and a spending bill that are ballooning the national debt. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

In an interview with Bloomberg News on Tuesday, McConnell (R-Ky.) called the nation’s growing deficit and debt “very disturbing” and argued that it’s being driven by Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid.

“There’s been a bipartisan reluctance to tackle entitlement changes because of the popularity of those programs,” McConnell said. “Hopefully at some point here we’ll get serious about this. We haven’t been yet.”

On Wednesday, McConnell told a group of reporters that he did not foresee an effort to cut Medicare and other programs under Trump, who has put Medicare and Social Security largely off limits. Trump himself reiterated in an Associated Press interview this week that “I’m not touching Social Security.”

But Democrats are telling voters that McConnell’s remarks signal plans for an all-out assault on the retirement and health care programs that millions of older and low-income Americans rely on. After Brett M. Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation process and Republicans’ attempts to go on offense over what they’ve characterized as liberal “mob rule,” Democrats jumped at the chance to redirect the conversation.

Van Hollen, who chairs the Senate Democratic campaign committee, held a conference with other party leaders to focus on McConnell’s comments. They sought to add urgency to arguments Democrats have been making in ads and campaign appearances all year, arguing that Republicans ballooned the deficit by passing a $1.5 trillion tax cut that mostly benefited corporations and the wealthy, and will now try to repair the damage by slashing entitlement programs.

“We need to make sure the public knows exactly what’s up,” Van Hollen said. “Mitch McConnell gave the game up in his comments, and now we just have to make sure the country knows.”

Republicans dismissed the new Democratic attacks and said the strategy would prove ineffective.

Steven Law, a former McConnell chief of staff who runs the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC, described the Democrats’ arguments as “a triple bank shot that would be lost on most voters, especially at a point where there is already maximum clutter and confusion on the airwaves.”

“First, McConnell didn’t say what the Dems want him to have said — they’d really have to cut up his remarks to get anything impactful,” Law said in an email. “Second, they’d have to convince voters that whatever McConnell didn’t quite say is what Candidate X already believes.”

Within hours of McConnell’s original comments, the state Democratic parties in Florida, Montana, and Nevada condemned him and asked whether Republican candidates for Senate stood by him.

“Does [Senate candidate Matt] Rosendale agree with the Senate Majority Leader, his party boss, that we should cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security?” Montana Democrats asked in a news release. “Rosendale certainly doesn’t have any trouble campaigning alongside McConnell and after all, Rosendale does oppose Montana’s Medicaid program.”

Democratic candidates, who had been arguing since last year that the tax cut was a precursor to Social Security and Medicare cuts, used the comments to reboot that messaging.

“Uh oh,” tweeted Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) on Wednesday. “Like the sun coming up in the morning. Tax cuts for the wealthy . . . now Rs planning cuts to Social Security and Medicare to cover the increasing deficit they caused. Not on my watch.”

The McConnell comments also cut against a tactic that many Republicans had begun using to raise questions about Democrats’ support of Medicare. In dozens of races, Republican PACs had accused Democrats of plotting to “end Medicare” by expanding it into a universal coverage program. In some cases, they’ve used that attack against Democrats who do not favor so-called Medicare-for-all.

“[Her] plan is to take most everything we have and give it away,” says an actor in one Republican ad targeting Michigan congressional candidate Elissa Slotkin. “We paid into this system. Why would she want to take this away from us?”

The ads resemble the kind that Democrats have run, and continue to run, against Republicans who have endorsed entitlement reform. But Democrats believed that McConnell threw a wrench into his party’s plans.

“Just like Social Security, Medicare is a pillar of retirement security and needs to be there for retirees now and in the future,” Slotkin, who does not support Medicare-for-all proposals, wrote in a tweet Tuesday. “If elected, no one will work harder than I will to defend it.”

McConnell gave Democrats more fodder Wednesday by telling Reuters in an interview that Republicans could try again to repeal the Affordable Care Act if they win enough seats in Congress next month. Democrats have been on the attack over the issue of protections for people with preexisting health conditions, a pillar of Obamacare that Republicans are now vowing to protect despite their votes to overturn the law.

Reports in recent weeks highlighted the growth of the deficit during the Trump administration, and budget experts have said new data show the tax cuts are making things worse, not better. The White House and top Republicans had promised the tax cuts would pay for themselves by leading to more revenue because of a surge in economic growth, but that so far has not occurred.

Republicans have said that because tax revenue is higher this year than last, it means the tax cuts have already been offset by growth. But a number of budget experts have said this is false. Part of the reason for the slight increase this year is because of a large amount of taxes paid in April when people filed their taxes on their 2017 income, and revenue levels are also coming in below what was projected before the tax cuts were put in place.

Moody’s Investors Services, a firm that monitors the U.S. government’s credit worthiness, said in a report that it expects the U.S. deficit to continue to get much worse in the coming years, in part because Congress and the White House don’t have a concrete plan for how to address it. It said the deficit could reach levels not seen since the recession in 2008 and 2009, a rare dynamic during a period of economic expansion.

The GOP tax bill and projected increase it would trigger in the federal deficit emerged as a point of contention in Tuesday’s night Senate debate in Texas, a key battleground in the fight for the majority.

Sen. Ted Cruz vehemently rejected the claim that Republicans were being hypocritical by passing a deficit-busting bill after years of warning about the dangers of incurring too much debt.

“The reason we have deficit and debt is not that we cut taxes and spur the economy. The reason we have deficit and debt is because Congress keeps spending,” he said, defending a bill he argued will spur economic growth.

His opponent, Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D) hit back, arguing Cruz voted to add $2 trillion to the nation’s debt for a tax bill he said benefited the wealthy corporations “who are already sitting on record piles of cash.”

Sean Sullivan and Seung Min Kim contributed to this story.