The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden names Republicans seeking changes to Medicare, Social Security

Republican lawmakers heckled and interrupted President Biden multiple times during his State of the Union address on Feb. 7. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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In his State of the Union address, Biden said some — but not all — Republicans want to target programs such as Social Security and Medicare, drawing jeers and catcalls from certain members of the GOP caucus.

On Wednesday, the president used his speech at a labor training center in Wisconsin to identify the Republicans he was talking about Tuesday night, reading direct comments the lawmakers have made when proposing changes.

“When I raised the plans of some of their members in their caucus to cut Social Security … Marjorie Taylor Greene and others stood up and said: ‘Liar, liar,’” Biden said. “Well, guess what? … I [will] remind you that Rick Scott from Florida, the guy who ran a U.S. Senate campaign, has a plan. I got his brochure right here!”

Biden was referring to Scott’s plan that would require all legislation — including that relating to entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare — to be “sunset,” which would require votes every five years to continue them.

Speaking in DeForest, Wis., the president also noted that one of the state’s own senators, Republican Ron Johnson, also has expressed support for targeting the two programs in a budget-cutting move.

Johnson, who won a hard-fought reelection race in November against the state’s former lieutenant governor, Mandela Barnes, suggested last August that Social Security and Medicare be eliminated as federal entitlement programs, saying the programs should instead become programs approved by Congress annually as discretionary spending.

“President Biden is lying about me. He lied last night, and he lied again today,” Johnson said in a statement to The Post. “I want to save these programs. I have simply pointed out the greatest threat to these programs is out-of-control debt and deficits. We need a process to prioritize spending and decrease our deficits.”

A day after his prime-time address, Biden rallied workers in the presidential battleground state, repeating several lines from his speech while focusing on the familiar themes of the need for bipartisanship and the strength of labor unions. The speech and his appearance are seen as previews if the president formally announces his reelection bid this spring.

Biden plans a stop in Tampa on Thursday and is expected to focus on preserving Medicare and Social Security.

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Among those jeering or expressing disbelief during Biden’s speech Tuesday night was Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). On Wednesday, Biden quoted from a 2010 video of Lee saying that it is his “objective to phase out Social Security” and that “Medicare and Medicaid … need to be pulled up” by their roots.

“They sure didn’t like me calling them [out] on it,” Biden said. “A lot of Republicans, their dream is to cut Social Security, Medicare. Well, let me just say this: It’s your dream, but I’m going to, with my veto pen, make it a nightmare.”

After Lee was shown on TV expressing outrage over Biden saying that some Republicans wanted to cut those entitlements, critics online shared a video of an event from Lee’s Senate campaign. In the video originally posted to YouTube, Lee told a group of voters in Cache Valley, Utah, on Feb. 23, 2010, that he was about to “tell you one thing you probably have never heard from a politician.”

“It will be my objective to phase out Social Security, to pull it up from the roots and get rid of it,” Lee said at the time. “People who advise me politically always tell me it’s dangerous and I tell them, ‘In that case it’s not worth my running.’ That’s why I’m doing this, to get rid of that. Medicare and Medicaid are of the same sort. They need to be pulled up.”

Critics and liberals shared the video so much on Twitter that Lee’s name became the No. 1 trending topic on the platform for much of Wednesday. It’s not the first time the video of Lee has resurfaced. During the senator’s reelection campaign last year, independent challenger Evan McMullin shared the video the day before the election.

“Mike Lee claims that he supports seniors. So why was he caught on camera saying that he will fight ‘to phase out social security’ and ‘pull it up by the roots?’” McMullin said at the time. Lee defeated McMullin by almost 10 percentage points.

Lee’s defenders have pushed back against the edited video and say that a longer version has him eventually saying, “We have to hold harmless those who are current beneficiaries,” the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

A spokesman for Lee did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday. After the State of the Union address, Lee posted a video of an interview he had with Utah Gov. Spencer Cox (R), who was the senator’s guest.

“The president of the United States looked us right in the eye and mischaracterized what half the people in the chamber believe,” Lee told Cox.

In a video posted to social media after Biden’s speech Tuesday, Greene accused Biden of lying about “Republicans and Social Security and Medicare.”

“We have not talked about cutting Social Security and Medicare,” she said. “Joe Biden has been claiming that we’re going to cut Social Security and Medicare, but we’re not.”

But Republican lawmakers have repeatedly made such proposals. The White House noted Wednesday that Lee, Scott and Johnson are not the only Republicans who have voiced support for targeting the programs.

The list provided by the White House includes Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican in the chamber. Thune told Bloomberg News in November that Republicans had a list of priorities — including budget cuts and changes to entitlement programs — that should be discussed as talks about increasing the debt limit are ongoing. Among the program changes, Thune suggested that Congress should consider increasing the Social Security retirement age.

His comments echo House Republicans’ efforts to get Biden and other Democrats to negotiate spending cuts in any deal to raise the debt ceiling. Democrats have long said they will not negotiate on this and will continue pushing for a clean increase. Republicans raised the debt ceiling without negotiation three times during the Trump administration.

On Wednesday, Thune told CBS News that Biden’s address proved that “both sides” agree that Social Security or Medicare shouldn’t be cut but added the debt limit discussion felt like “good place” to talk about the debt and start a discussion on the programs’ sustainability. “We spend more than we take in every year,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you have to cut things, but there are a lot of younger Americans today who understand that, if something isn’t done, Social Security isn’t going to be around for them.”

In June, the Republican Study Committee — a panel composed of a majority of House Republicans — suggested in its annual alternative budget for fiscal 2023 that the eligibility ages for Social Security and Medicare should be raised. The report also suggests that individuals who retire early or meet certain income criteria should have their payments withheld.

“President Biden clearly struck a nerve last night when he raised congressional Republicans’ long history of working to cut the Medicare and Social Security benefits that Americans pay to earn for their entire working lives,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates said in an email.

As Biden also noted in his remarks Tuesday and Wednesday, some Republicans have publicly pushed back against Johnson and Scott’s efforts to curtail both programs.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), for example, told reporters early last year that these cuts are not part of the Republican agenda. “We will not have as part of our agenda a bill that raises taxes on half the American people and sunsets Social Security and Medicare within five years,” McConnell said.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), in response to Biden’s address, told “Fox & Friends” on Wednesday that he has “said it many times before: Social Security and Medicare are off the table.”

The president said Wednesday that he found the Republican response to his mention of Scott and Johnson’s proposals “interesting.”

“It sounded like they agreed to take these cuts off the table,” Biden said. “I’ll believe it when I see it in their budgets. … But it looks like we negotiated a deal last night on the floor of the House of Representatives.”

More on the 2023 State of the Union address

The speech: President Biden used his 2023 State of the Union address to emphasize popular ideas from job creation to health care, pitching himself as a friend of ordinary Americans. Here are a few takeaways and a fact check of Biden’s speech.

A combative night: Midway through the State of the Union address, the room turned feisty as some Republican lawmakers began booing Biden. In one of the most disruptive moments of the night, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene yelled toward Biden: “Liar!” There was also a harsh exchange between Mitt Romney and Rep. George Santos. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy excused the hecklers, saying they were “passionate.”

The Republican response: In her rebuttal to the State of the Union address, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders accused Biden of caring more about “woke fantasies” than Americans’ economic concerns and called him “unfit to serve."