March 23, 2023

Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said on Sunday that cuts to Medicare and Social Security are “off the table” as his party seeks to win a concession from the Biden administration in exchange for raising the debt limit. His statement comes after Republicans have indicated for months that they will take the debt limit hostage until spending cuts are made to the government budget, and after some Republicans have indicated Medicare and Social Security are prime choices for the chopping block.

“Let’s take those off the table,” McCarthy told CBS News’ “Face the Nation” when asked if he was considering any reductions to Social Security and Medicare.

“If you read our commitment to America, all we talk about is strengthening Medicare and Social Security,” he added.

Over the last several months, some Republicans repeatedly stated that they will hold the debt ceiling hostage to demand cuts to Medicare and Social Security. So McCarthy’s promise that cuts to those programs are “off the table” seems to walk back those plans.

But the comments left room for ambiguity, with McCarthy continuing to talk about Republican plans for the programs, which, he suggested, may be implemented through separate legislation. Asked by host Margaret Brennan what he meant by strengthen, McCarthy avoided the question and pivoted to casting Democrats as spendthrifts.

“What I’m talking about Social Security, Medicare, you keep that to the side,” he said. “What I want to look at is they’ve increased spending by 30%, $400 billion in four years.”

Following McCarthy’s remarks, the White House quickly rebuked McCarthy’s rhetoric that the GOP wants to “strengthen” the two government programs, arguing that the comments did not represent a shift in Republicans’ plans to slash spending on programs like Medicare and Social Security.

“For years, congressional Republicans have advocated for slashing earned benefits using Washington code words like ‘strengthen,’ when their policies would privatize Medicare and Social Security, raise the retirement age, or cut benefits,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement. “House Republicans refuse to raise revenue from the wealthy, but insist they will ‘strengthen’ earned benefits programs.”

This comes as the much-anticipated get together between Speaker and President Biden is right around the corner. The two are expected to meet on Wednesday, even though the White House indicated multiple times that it will not negotiate with Republicans on spending cuts to increase the debt limit.

“I know his staff tries to say something different, but I think the president is gonna be willing to make an agreement together,” McCarthy said.

“He literally led the talks in 2011 and he praised having those talks. This is what he’s always done in the past,” he added. “I don’t believe he would change his behavior from before, and I know there’s a willingness on our side to find a way that we can find a reasonable and responsible way to get this done.”

In addition to apparent divides within the Republican Party over whether there should be cuts to Medicare and Social Security spending, some hardliners — who held back McCarthy from getting the speakership for days in January — are set on not making any cuts to the defense budget.

But McCarthy indicated in his CBS interview that cuts to spending in every other area — except, seemingly, Medicare and Social Security — are possible and will be considered.

“I want to make sure we’re protected in our defense spending, but I want to make sure it’s effective and efficient. I want to look at every single dollar we’re spending, no matter where it’s being spent. I want to eliminate waste wherever it is,” McCarthy said. “We shouldn’t just print more money, we should balance our budget. So I want to look at every single department. Where can we become more efficient, more effective, and more accountable?”

This could create a real headache and another very public fight between McCarthy and the conservative MAGA holdouts that hijacked the speakership vote.

Some of these Republicans have also suggested they want to roll back spending to levels approved in the 2022 fiscal year. But an official plan laying out the cuts they’re proposing as part of a deal to raise the debt ceiling is yet to be put out publicly, despite calls from Democrats — including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) — to unveil their plan.

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