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Democrats and Republicans have been sparring for months over the federal government’s two main safety net programs, Social Security and Medicare. In the State of the Union address, President Biden said some Republicans want to target the programs for cuts. His remarks drew jeers from the GOP leading to an unusual moment of live policy negotiation and apparent agreement. Lisa Desjardins reports.
Democrats and Republicans have been sparring for months over the federal government's two main social safety net programs, Social Security and Medicare.
In Tuesday's State of the Union address, President Biden said some, but not all Republicans want to target the programs for cuts, his remarks drawing jeers from some members of the GOP, all of it leading to an unusual moment of live policy negotiation and apparent agreement.
Joe Biden, President of the United States: Social Security and Medicare is off the books now, right? They're not to be touched?
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
All right. We've got unanimity.
Social Security and Medicare are a lifeline for millions of seniors. Americans have to pay into them from the very first paycheck they started.
Let's all agree — and we apparently are — let's stand up for seniors.
Stand up and show them we will not cut Social Security, we will not cut Medicare.
While Republicans have accused President Biden of misrepresenting their proposals, a handful of GOP lawmakers have floated making changes to the programs.
Rep. Michael Waltz (R-FL):
If we really want to talk about the debt and spending, it's the entitlements program.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC):
We're down to a small fraction of the federal pie to run the discretionary part of government. So, entitlement reform is a must for us to not become Greece.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL):
We ought to every year talk about exactly how we're going to fix Medicare and Social Security. Here's what's happening. No one that I know of wants to sunset Medicare and Social Security. But what we're doing is, we don't even talk about it. Medicare goes bankrupt in four years. Social Security goes bankrupt in 12 years.
The president took his message to Florida today, promising to protect the social programs crucial to seniors.
Folks on fixed incomes rely on Social Security and Medicare to get by. They deserve a greater sense of security and dignity.
I know that a lot of Republicans, their dream is to cut Social Security and Medicare. Well, let me say this. If that's your dream, I'm your nightmare.
And following all of this closely is our congressional correspondent, Lisa Desjardins.
So, Lisa, let's dispense with the politics just for a second, shall we, and talk about the underlying issue. Medicare and Social Security both face the same basic problem, in that people are living a lot longer than they did when these programs were created.
Where are we with the solvency of both of these programs?
Let's take a minute to look at it. So this is according to the trustees for these various programs.
First, let's start with Medicare. Right now, if Congress does not then, Medicare will be insolvent in 2028. That used to be a date far away. It isn't anymore. That would mean if, again, nothing happens, the payments to medical providers would be cut about 10 percent. Social Security, a little bit longer, but still a major consideration here is that retirees, that retiree fund would be insolvent in 2034.
And that would mean, if Congress does nothing, cuts of about 20 percent to benefits. Another way to think about that for Social Security. Geoff, is anyone in this country who's 56 years old or younger would see their Social Security benefits cut by at least 20 percent if Congress does nothing.
So, you have got more than, what, 60 million Americans enrolled in these programs right now. What are the possible solutions?
OK, let's go over that, because it's not easy. There's one reason they haven't done this, is because these aren't easy decisions.
They're going — someone's going to have to make sacrifices. Number one, one thing that they could do is increase payroll taxes for some or all Americans. Maybe richer Americans pay more. That's one idea. We could — they could also raise the eligibility ages even more or the criteria for qualifying for these programs.
They could also reform how Medicare pays medical providers. Specifically, there could be a lot of savings there. And then the bottom one is lower benefits for some or all Americans. And that is what you often hear referred to as cuts. But if you raise eligibility, that also means fewer benefits for fewer people.
In all of this, Geoff, timing matters. The longer that Congress and the president wait to make these decisions, the deeper those kinds of cuts could be in the future.
So this all ties in to the country's debt problem. What would it mean for the bottom line if Congress does nothing to address the solvency issue?
Think about Medicare and Social Security as almost the equal of the regular agency budget for all of government.
So if you don't address the red ink in those programs, you have a major problem. You have fewer options for what to cut.
We talked to Larry Levitt of the Kaiser Family Foundation about what exactly would happen if Medicare and Social Security continue to bleed this rhetoric.
Larry Levitt, Senior Vice President, Kaiser Family Foundation:
If you want to balance the budget, and you take two big programs in Medicare and Social Security off the table, probably defense spending is largely off the table as well.
The next big chunk of the federal budget is Medicaid. So if you're going to balance the budget and take all these other tools off the table, you're probably looking at big cuts in a program like Medicaid.
Medicaid, the program for lower-income Americans.
And what he's saying there is, Republicans say they want a balanced budget. But if you don't change Medicare and Social Security or affect the Defense Department, Medicaid is probably the next big target left. No one's proposing cuts there, but he's saying one plus one plus one, this is what's left.
So what then are Republicans, what are Democrats proposing to do about this?
I think — exactly.
We're going to be talking this probably more down the road. Let's talk, first of all, about Florida Senator Rick Scott, whose name comes up a lot in this. He's proposing something very specific. He's using the word sunset. And he says he wants to sunset every federal program every five years, basically look at every federal program every five years.
As part of that are Social Security and Medicare. He has not yet proposed specific cuts to those programs. But, listen, I have talked to him a lot about the national debt, and he is really kind of out far front on the national debt. He does think government needs to shrink. And I'm waiting to see what his proposals will be specifically for how he would deal with Medicare and Social Security, because he talks about it a lot.
Other than that, the truth is, there's no plan. There is not really a full proposal from Democrats or Republicans. Senator Joe Manchin, the Democrat, I said he wants to try and perhaps propose a commission. But the White House initially has said, no, we're not going to talk about that, at least not as part of a national debt proposal.
So we have a major problem looming. It's coming fast. There's no plan quite yet or no discussion yet either.
Lisa Desjardins, I learn so much whenever I talk with you.
It's good to see you. Thanks.
Good to see you.
Watch the Full Episode
Lisa Desjardins is a correspondent for PBS NewsHour, where she covers news from the U.S. Capitol while also traveling across the country to report on how decisions in Washington affect people where they live and work.
Saher Khan is a reporter-producer for the PBS NewsHour.
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