In early 2022, Florida Sen. Rick Scott, the chair of the Republican Senate campaign arm, released what he called an “11 Point Plan to Save America.” One year later, one specific dim element of that plan—a proposal that all laws, including Social Security and Medicare, would expire in five years unless reapproved—is still coming back to haunt Republicans. The threat to two of the nation’s most beloved social programs was the backdrop of the most dramatic moment of President Biden’s State of the Union address on Tuesday. And as much as Scott may protest—or perhaps because of it—Democrats won’t be dropping the attack anytime soon.
In the portion of his speech on the need to raise the debt limit, Biden said, “Some of my Republican friends want to take the economy hostage unless I agree to their economic plans.” Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who had given his own remarks on the debt limit the day before to prebut the attacks he knew would come, gave one of his many solemnly disappointed shakes of the head.
“Some Republicans want Social Security and Medicare to sunset,” Biden said, before being cut off by loud Republican jeering, punched up with individual shouts from the likes of Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who pointed at the president and yelled, “Liar!”
The scene was chaotic enough that Biden had to veer off script and engage in a live policy dialogue with his detractors. That’s unusual, and thrilling for what’s otherwise become a stale tradition. He clarified, almost apologetically, that he wasn’t talking about all Republicans. And when some shouted at him to name these Republicans who wanted Social Security and Medicare to expire, Biden demurred.
“I’m politely not naming them,” he said, “but it’s being proposed by some.”
The prepared line in Biden’s speech, before he was interrupted, was this: “Some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset every five years.” The “some Republicans,” in this case, is one Rick Scott.
In his 11-point plan, sub-point 7 of point 6 reads: “All federal legislation sunsets in 5 years. If a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again.” The plan doesn’t single out Medicare and Social Security specifically, but these are programs that were established by federal legislation and would thus disappear under Scott’s proposal unless renewed every five years. This is an … impracticable idea. Congress can’t rewrite all federal law every five years—nor should anyone want them to.
But the agenda’s out, and now Scott and his party have to live with it. Scott is, of course, capable of softening that language, or deleting it altogether, anytime he wants to. He’s already watered down another bullet point suggesting that all “Americans should pay some income tax to have skin in the game” after everyone pointed out that he was calling to raise taxes on the poorest half of Americans.
Given that he’s had a year to learn this lesson, you would think Scott might now be changing his tune. In releasing the plan last year, Scott had released a Republican agenda for Democrats to scour for attacks throughout the midterm elections (even though he insisted he was acting in his personal capacity). It was a direct challenge to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s preferred election strategy of keeping the focus strictly on Democratic policies.
As we know, Republicans’ efforts to retake the Senate never materialized, with Democrats adding one seat to their threadbare majority. And even though the election has passed, Democrats have hardly forgotten about the political potency embedded in elements of Scott’s plan—which, again, he could still modify if he so chose.
But Scott still hasn’t done that with this agenda item. Even after a night to sleep on it, Scott woke up Wednesday defending his idea.
Is it clear and obvious, though, that this idea is “aimed at dealing with ALL the crazy new laws our Congress has been passing of late”? When we read “all federal legislation,” we think about more than the Inflation Reduction Act or the American Rescue Plan. Where to begin? We think of the Voting Rights Act or the Clean Water Act. We think of the establishment of the Department of Education. And we think of Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid. These may not all be laws that Republicans want to scrap in their entirety. But they are ones that many Republicans would like to have a fresh leverage point over, every five years, to make cuts. For now, they believe that their only real leverage point to tackle spending programs they believe are on “autopilot” is when it’s time to raise the debt ceiling, which is why we are where we are, with another looming debt-ceiling crisis that threatens a brittle global economy.
Plenty of Republicans, including chairs of important committees and caucuses in the House, have been muttering about using the debt limit to force changes to Medicare and Social Security. Even before the State of the Union, though, that was unlikely to be the path they pursued in negotiations. McCarthy, for one—and Donald Trump, for another—understands that holding the global economy hostage in order to extract cuts to Medicare and Social Security would be the dumbest move in history. They would lose the policy fight, and the political damage could cost them the 2024 election. In his remarks the day before the State of the Union, McCarthy said that “cuts to Medicare and Social Security are off the table” for the debt-limit negotiations.
Biden used his State of the Union to lock them into that position. As Republican protested his claim that “some” of them wanted to cut Medicare and Social Security, he said he was happy to see so much “conversion.”
“So, folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now, right?” Biden said. Applause broke out.
The one saving grace for Rick Scott? If it hadn’t been his toxic plan Biden chose to highlight, it would have been someone else’s. There’s plenty of loose talk out there. It could have been Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson’s suggestion that mandatory spending programs be subjected to annual review. It could have been Utah Sen. Mike Lee’s 2010 vow to “phase out Social Security, to pull it up from the roots and get rid of it.” Biden could simply have referenced Republicans’ efforts to cut Medicaid, a cornerstone of their 2017 Obamacare repeal plan, which quite nearly made it into law.
When put like that, though, Scott deserves some credit. One line from a brochure has had enough juice not just to survive a year in his opponents’ playbook but to be the focal point of an unusually memorable State of the Union as an incumbent president prepares for reelection. It’s an achievement, showcasing the long, toxic shelf life of a poorly written idea.