Congress, whose members struggle to accomplish simple tasks like funding the government and raising the debt ceiling, is suddenly talking about changes to Medicare and Social Security.
There’s plenty of reasons to be skeptical that any of that big talk will pay off.
Delaware Democrat Chris Coons, for one, has a unique seat at the table as a bipartisan group of his fellow senators meet quietly about potential solutions to shore up Social Security’s long-term fiscal health. Coons, a close ally of President Joe Biden who’s sat in on meetings of the bipartisan Social Security gang, openly admits that changing the popular entitlement “is one of the most difficult things for Congress to do.”
“Democrats, for the whole time I’ve been here, say: ‘Social Security is easy to fix, just raise taxes,’” Coons said, adding that he supports that position. “Republicans refuse to do that. Republicans say ‘this is easy to fix, simply raise the age of eligibility or [otherwise] reduce benefits over time.’ Democrats refuse to do that.”
Coons’ description of the two parties’ entrenched positions helps explain why the Senate entitlements group — led by Angus King (I-Maine) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) — is offering few specifics about what exactly their months-long work entails. Not only is the King-Cassidy gang not done yet, but its members are keenly aware that as soon as they unveil a plan, it’s going to come under immediate attack.
King and Cassidy are taking a “very different” approach to try and avoid those pitfalls, Coons said. But this still isn’t “The West Wing,” the TV show where a fictional president cut a bipartisan Social Security deal in a single day.
“People are a little nervous,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who voted for a Reagan-era Social Security fix in the 1980s. “Right now it’s not a welcoming context for a bipartisan solution with big changes.”
Cassidy’s response: “Is there ever a good time? The answer is always no.”
Meanwhile, their group isn’t the only corner of Washington where there’s fresh interest in changing Medicare, Social Security or both. President Joe Biden will propose raising Medicare taxes on high earners as part of his budget this week. Progressive Democrats want to remove a $160,000 payroll tax cap in order to shore up Social Security.
But when concrete policy ideas get proposed for the two retirement programs, it usually gets ugly, and fast, as King and Cassidy may soon find out. Case in point: Republicans shot down Biden’s Medicare proposal hours after he rolled it out Tuesday.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell immediately torched the pitch as “massive tax increases.”
“That is a Band-Aid, that is not a fix … it doesn’t do anything but win him political points,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said of Biden’s plan. “It’s pretending that he’s making headway, but he’s being dishonest with the American people. You can’t fill that bucket with the few drops he’s talking about.”
Tillis also criticized former President Donald Trump for taking a hard line against any structural changes to entitlements. Trump’s attacks on potential 2024 presidential rivals Nikki Haley, Mike Pence and Ron DeSantis have jolted the GOP and divided the party over how to handle popular programs that, according to some estimates, could have serious problems within a decade absent significant changes.
But 10 years might as well be an eon in Congress, where imminent problems are far more likely to force action. Former President Ronald Reagan and former Speaker Tip O’Neill cut their 40-year-old Social Security deal amid fast-approaching fiscal calamity — which today’s negotiators fear may happen again for no reason other than politics.
At the moment, Cassidy said only that his and King’s unfinished proposal may include automatic triggers that would kick in to make necessary fiscal changes to preserve Social Security. Even so, it’s pretty hard for Capitol Hill veterans to envision solving long-running entitlement funding problems while more immediate challenges, like the debt ceiling, remain unaddressed.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy has ruled out entitlement changes as part of this year’s debt limit negotiations. And in the immediate future, most Republicans would much rather look at almost any other kind of spending.
“We need to be working on the national debt. That’s not the place to start,” Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) said. “Social Security/Medicare right now is not in great shape, but it’s not to the point we need to be messing with it.”
The Democratic Party could be even harder to sway. Biden has cast himself as a firm defender of the two programs, and his party marshaled a broadside against Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) for suggesting last year that all government programs should sunset after five years. Recently, Scott clarified that his idea would not pertain to Social Security and Medicare, but he’d already put Democrats on offense on the issue.
Which means anything that smacks of cuts — hitting current or future retirees — is going down in flames with Biden’s party.
“There is zero chance we’re going to reduce Social Security benefits now or in the future,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said. “So if we want to talk about how to make this program stronger, let’s do it. I think we win the argument.”
Schatz’s preferred solution is lifting the cap on payroll taxes that fund Social Security and increasing benefits. But Republicans are generally not in the business of considering tax increases, particularly with a presidential election next year.
So Democrats’ proposal to bolster both Medicare and Social Security with some tax increases is not going to fly with most Republicans.
“No, it’s not,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said. “But what I hope it leads to is a more complete discussion.”
If that’s what’s happening behind closed doors among King and Cassidy’s group — which numbers roughly a dozen senators, according to two people familiar with the talks — then the hardest part is yet to come. Should they eventually agree on any final proposal, King and Cassidy need to create buy-in across Congress, including party leaders in both chambers.
“There’s the policy. There’s the politics and the process. The policy is absolutely ready for primetime,” Cassidy argued. “The politics and the process is what we have to work now. We have a strong bipartisan group in the Senate, but until you get the White House and the House of Representatives … you really can’t go far.”
Both men face their own competing pressures as they lead the group. Cassidy voted to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial and got intimately involved in the last Congress’ bipartisan gangs, moves that both raised eyebrows among conservatives. And King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, is taking a significant risk looking at entitlements as he pursues a reelection campaign in a state with one of America’s oldest populations.
King said he hasn’t spoken to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer about the group’s work, in part because he doesn’t yet have something concrete to present. But when he does, he seems to think it’s a risk worth taking.
“It’s tough. There’s no question. But to not do anything, there’s no doubt about what’s coming at us,” King said, referring to projections of Medicare and Social Security insolvency. “I came here to try and solve problems. And this is a big one.”