In his State of the Union address Tuesday night President Joe Biden used Florida Sen. Rick Scott’s controversial “sunset” plan to bait Republicans into apparently backing protections on Social Security and Medicare.
The moment came almost 40 minutes into Biden’s address. The president, already turning combative on fraught debt ceiling negotiations, triggered his GOP rivals by saying: “Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share, some Republicans, some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset every five years.”
That elicited boos and heckling from the Republicspanns in the U.S. House chamber.
Biden seemed to be referring to a plan Scott proposed almost a year ago. That plan plainly states: “All federal legislation sunsets in 5 years. If a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again.”
Scott certainly believed the president was talking about his plan, and he responded on social media in a Wednesday morning Twitter thread in which he said Biden was “twisting my words” and that his proposal was not about challenging valuable government programs.
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That nuance, however, was lost on Tuesday night on Capitol Hill.
“I’m not saying it’s the majority,” Biden allowed, as the GOP protestations grew louder in front of a national TV audience not used to seeing that kind of reality TV drama in a State of the Union address.
Biden then said that any member disagreeing could “contact my office” for a copy of that proposal as House Speaker Kevin McCarthy smiled and shook his head.
Television cameras then focused on far-right U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, wearing a white coat with a furry collar, standing and seemingly shouting “You lie.” Seconds later she could be seen again shouting, “Liar!”
The “politely” unnamed Republicans Biden was referring to likely included Florida’s Rick Scott
That’s when Biden turned the tables on his GOP rivals in a back-and-forth more closely resembling the British Parliament’s House of Commons.
“I’m not saying it’s the majority of you,” Biden said, and then seemed to reference a plan put forth last year by Scott. “But it’s being proposed by individuals. I’m politely not naming them but it’s being proposed by some of you.”
Biden then said his administration and Democrats in Congress would not “be moved into being threatened to default on the debt if we don’t respond.”
That drew loud applause from the Democrats. And as Republicans continued to protest, Biden seized on their defense of the entitlement programs.
“So folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare are off the books now, right? They’re not going to be touched,” Biden said giving a thumbs up to a standing ovation. “All right, we got unanimity.”
The consensus presumably clamps down on demands by some to privatize or otherwise change benefits since Biden got the majority of Republicans cheering at the State of the Union to acknowledge such alterations are “off the books.”
That would be a major win for the Biden White House and a loss for fiscal conservatives seeking to change the New Deal and Great Society landmark programs by arguing transformative reforms are necessary to save them from going bankrupt. And it could ease contentious debt ceiling negotiations by gutting a key leverage point for hardline Republicans threatening to default on the U.S. debt.
Biden noted that Social Security and Medicare “are a lifeline for millions of seniors” and Americans pay into the program from the first paycheck they receive.
“So tonight let’s all agree, and apparently we are, let’s stand up for seniors,” Biden said, fists clenched as even McCarthy and Republicans stood and cheered in a rare moment of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill.
He vowed to stop any efforts to gut or reduce the scope of the two programs.
“But apparently that’s not going to be a problem,” he said wryly.
So, what is Rick Scott’s so-called “sunset” plan. And how would it have impacted Social Security and Medicare?
Biden’s statements were an apparent reference to Scott’s proposed 12-point government reform plan. In that proposal, item number 6 calls for government reform and the five-year sunset on federal legislation.
Scott via Twitter Wednesday struck a defiant tone saying the “Washington establishment” is badly misjudging him if it thinks it can “shut me up or intimidate me by lying” about the proposal. He also issued a thread explaining the purpose of his 12-point plan.
“Last night, @JoeBiden rambled for a while, but it seems he forgot to share the facts: In my plan, I suggested the following: All federal legislation sunsets in 5 yrs. If a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again,” read one post in a thread.
He added in another post: “This is clearly & obviously an idea aimed at dealing with ALL the crazy new laws our Congress has been passing of late. @JoeBiden is confused…to suggest that this means I want to cut Social Security or Medicare is a lie, & is a dishonest move…from a very confused President.”
The threat continued with the senator writing: “Does he think I also intend to get rid of the U.S. Navy? Or the border patrol? Or air traffic control, maybe? This is the kind of fake, gotcha BS that people hate about Washington. I’ve never advocated cutting Social Security or Medicare and never would.”
Nonetheless, it’s far from the first time Democrats, including Biden, have attacked Scott’s plan as potentially imperiling the two programs.
In fact, they pounced on the clause from the moment Scott offered it pointing out that even programs like Social Security and Medicare would expire and come to an end if Congress did not reauthorize them every five years.
The criticism grew more acute in the new, 118th Congress where polarization on Capitol Hill and the ability of one or two senators or a handful of House members to stall or defeat any legislation.
Just last month, a small minority of House Republicans forced 15 votes, and a near brawl on the House floor, before McCarthy was elected House speaker. The last time it required that many rounds of balloting to choose a speaker was before the Civil War.
Moreover, it wasn’t just Democrats who eschewed Scott’s call.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell immediately rejected Scott’s plan and said it would not be adopted by the GOP caucus in the U.S Senate. Fellow Florida Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio dismissed it when asked if he supported Scott’s plan during a debate last October.
And the plan was derided by Biden when the president toured South Florida to campaign for Democratic candidates a week before last November’s election.
During one speech, Biden singled out Scott for offering up the proposal that could have put a target on Social Security and Medicare.
“A senator from Florida going after Social Security and Medicare? I tell you, look, it’s so outrageous, you might even — you might not even believe it. ” he said, adding of congressional Republicans overall: “Who the hell do these guys think they are?”