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Fact check: Breaking down Biden’s exchanges with Republican senators over Social Security and Medicare


By Daniel Dale, CNN

President Joe Biden has gone on the attack over Social Security and Medicare.

In speeches and tweets this week, Biden and his White House have singled out particular Republican senators — notably including Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, Sen. Rick Scott of Florida and Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin — over proposals from those senators that could affect the retirement and health care programs.

The Republican senators have responded forcefully, accusing Biden of deceiving the public about where they stand. Here is a fact-check of the exchanges.

Biden vs. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah

Biden and his White House targeted Lee on Wednesday over a video clip of Lee saying, “I’m here right now to tell you one thing that you probably have never heard from a politician. It will be my objective to phase out Social Security, to pull it up by the roots and get rid of it.” The clip has gone viral on Twitter this week; a second viral clip features Lee saying moments later, “Medicare and Medicaid are of the same sort and need to be pulled up.”

The videos are authentic, though Biden didn’t tell his Wednesday speech audience in Wisconsin they are from more than 12 years ago — an event in 2010, when Lee was running for the Senate but before he was first elected. And as Lee noted in Wednesday tweets responding to Biden, Biden didn’t mention that Lee added at the same 2010 event that current Medicare beneficiaries should have their benefits “left untouched” and that “the next layer beneath them, those who will retire in the next few years, also probably have to be held harmless.”

Still, while Biden could have included more context, he was accurate in saying Lee had called for Social Security to be phased out.

And while Lee said in a tweeted statement on Wednesday that, during his 12 years as a senator, he has not called for “abolishing” Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid benefits, only for “solutions to improve those programs and move them toward solvency,” he has supported benefit cuts. For example, he has endorsed various proposals over the years to raise the Social Security retirement age.

Biden vs. Sen. Rick Scott of Florida

Since last year, Biden has criticized Scott over particular components of what Scott calls his “12 Point Plan to Rescue America.”

In the State of the Union address on Tuesday and in speeches on Wednesday and Thursday, the president referred to a part of Scott’s plan that says, “All federal legislation sunsets in 5 years. If a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again.” Biden correctly asserted that “all federal legislation” would include Social Security and Medicare, which do not currently require congressional re-approval.

Scott responded by accusing Biden of being dishonest and confused. Scott argued on Twitter on Wednesday that while his plan does say that “all” federal legislation should sunset in five years and become subject to a new vote by Congress, “This is clearly & obviously an idea aimed at dealing with ALL the crazy new laws our Congress has been passing of late.”

But the plan itself doesn’t say that.

The plan’s official text, which remains online on a dedicated website, says “all federal legislation,” period, should be sunset in five years — not all recent legislation, all crazy legislation or all legislation except for the laws that created Social Security and Medicare. When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell rejected Scott’s plan last year, McConnell too said that the plan “sunsets Social Security and Medicare within five years.”

Last year, Biden sometimes overstated the support for Scott’s sunset proposal among congressional Republicans, which appears very limited. Biden has been more precise in his speeches this week, attributing the proposal to Scott himself or accurately saying in the State of the Union that “some” Republicans — “I’m not saying it’s a majority” — support it.

Biden may have created an inaccurate impression, however, by mentioning the sunset proposal during the section of the State of the Union in which he discussed the battle over the debt ceiling. There is no indication that House Republicans are pushing this proposal as part of the current debt ceiling negotiations with the Biden administration, and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has, more generally, said cuts to Social Security and Medicare are “off the table” in these negotiations.

Scott, in turn, has tossed a false claim into the debate with Biden this week by repeatedly accusing the president of having cut billions from Medicare in last year’s Inflation Reduction Act. The Inflation Reduction Act did not cut Medicare benefits; rather, it allowed the government and seniors to spend less money to buy prescription drugs — and, in fact, simultaneously made Medicare benefits more generous to seniors. The claim of a Medicare cut was repeatedly debunked last year, when Scott and a Republican campaign organization he chaired used it during the midterm elections.

On Friday afternoon, the day after McConnell told a Kentucky radio station that Scott’s proposal will be a “challenge” for Scott’s own 2024 re-election campaign in a state with a large population of seniors, Scott announced he is introducing a new bill that would make it more difficult for Congress to make any cuts to Social Security and Medicare and that would send the Inflation Reduction Act’s $80 billion in Internal Revenue Service funding to Social Security and Medicare instead.

Biden vs. Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin

This week and in numerous previous speeches, Biden has castigated Johnson for saying last year that Medicare and Social Security should be treated as discretionary spending, which Congress has to approve every year, rather than as permanent entitlements.

Biden has accurately cited Johnson’s remarks this week. Here’s what Johnson told a Green Bay radio show in August: “We’ve got to turn everything into discretionary spending, so it’s all evaluated, so that we can fix problems or fix programs that are broken, that are going to be going bankrupt. Because, again, as long as things are on automatic pilot, we just continue to pile up debt.” When Johnson faced criticism for those remarks at the time, he stood by them and said that was his consistent longtime position.

Johnson, however, claimed Wednesday that Biden was “lying” when the president discussed Johnson’s comments shortly after saying that some Republicans want to “cut” Social Security. Johnson has repeatedly said that his proposal to require annual approval for Social Security spending, and to “fix” and “save” Social Security in light of its poor fiscal shape at present, does not mean that he wants to put the programs on the “chopping block” or even to “cut” it.

“The Democrats have been accusing me, since the first time I ran for office, of wanting to end Social Security, wanting to cut it, wanting to gut it, wanting to — I’ve never said that. I’ve always been consistent: I want to save it,” he said in a radio interview this week.

It’s impossible to definitively fact-check this particular dispute without Johnson specifying how he wants to “fix” and “save” the program. His office did not respond to a CNN request for comment.

White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates noted in an email to reporters on Thursday that, though Johnson accused Biden this week of lying about his stance on Social Security, Johnson also said in interviews this week that Social Security is a “legal Ponzi scheme” and that “Social Security might be in a more stable position for younger workers” if the government had proceeded with Republican President George W. Bush’s controversial and eventually abandoned proposal in the mid-2000s to allow workers born after 1949 to divert a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes into private accounts in which they could buy into the stock market and make other investments.

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