House Republicans are setting the stage for a renewed showdown between the Republican-led House and the Democratic-led Senate after a right-wing blockade of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy temporarily ground Congress to a halt earlier this month in protest of a controversial bipartisan agreement to raise the federal debt limit.
On Wednesday, the conservative Republican Study Committee released a budget proposal threatening to cross numerous red lines drawn by Democrats on programs like Social Security and Medicare that McCarthy had previously taken off the table in his negotiations with the White House.
Among the proposed reforms were provisions to raise the retirement age to become eligible for Social Security benefits by two years as well as a voucher program intended to offset burdens on Medicare with a privately funded alternative that critics have characterized as “risky.”
Reforms to both programs are arguably needed. Without reforms, Social Security is likely to reach a point of insolvency by 2033, while federal appropriators believe the hospital insurance trust fund behind Medicare will be completely gone by 2028. Without an immediate fix, Republicans argued both programs would not only cease to exist—they could also grow more expensive, leading to massive tax increases for the average American within the next decade.
“While cutting spending is difficult, most Americans would support those actions rather than continue with Biden’s inflation crisis and higher interest rates,” RSC leadership wrote in a letter announcing the proposals. “Years of inaction and overspending have put us in this position. The RSC Budget offers a path to economic security by reducing tax and regulatory burdens, eliminating over $16 trillion in wasteful spending, and balancing the federal budget in seven years.”
But both enormously popular programs have also long been considered political third rails that leaders of both parties interfere with at their own peril.
During early-stage negotiations to raise the debt ceiling, President Joe Biden hammered Republicans for proposals he claimed would slash benefits for seniors and economically vulnerable Americans, while public opinion polling showed voters in both parties opposed any reductions in spending for either program.
But McCarthy—already in the midst of a crisis of confidence within his caucus—will likely need to play along. Having already undergone 15 rounds of voting to become Speaker, the California Republican inspired a miniature revolt within the Republican conference after striking a deal with the White House that many members saw as a distant departure from the hardline reforms they’d pursued at the start of the 118th Congress.
During a non-controversial vote on legislation to thwart a federal ban on gas stoves last week, nearly one-dozen Republicans joined with Democrats to block the deal, pledging to rob McCarthy of his narrow majority indefinitely unless he was willing to embrace a more hardline policy approach in the upcoming federal budget.
After earning a commitment from the White House to limit the growth of federal spending over the next two years to no more than one percent, McCarthy signaled he would be willing to support appropriations bills from his members recommending steep reductions in spending, drawing alarm from Democrats and some Senate Republicans McCarthy was setting them up for another stalemate ahead of the January 2024 deadline to pass a budget.
In addition to reductions in social welfare programs Democrats covet, the RSC budget proposals include a number of new tax cuts, the elimination of green energy incentives and an expansion of fossil fuel drilling alongside sweeping regulatory reforms ranging from a three-year sunset on all federal regulations to bans on federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
The plan was quickly slammed by Senate Democrats, who signaled early they were unlikely to support the deal.
“Already, they’re backing out of the bipartisan budget deal and proposing to cut $16.3 TRILLION, including cuts to Social Security and ending Medicare as we know it,” the Senate Budget Committee Democrats wrote in a statement slamming the proposal.
“They are cutting health insurance by eliminating ACA subsidies, block-granting Medicaid and CHIP, and threatening coverage for the most vulnerable. And they’re cutting taxes for large corporations and the wealthy, while asking everyone else to pay for them. These cuts serve nobody but MAGA Republicans’ megadonors and creepy billionaires.”
Newsweek has reached out to the House Budget Committee Democrats as well as Democratic members of the House Ways and Means Committee for comment.
It is unlikely the terms of the RSC proposal—whose backers include about 80 percent of the Republican conference—will be accepted wholesale. Speaking with Axios last week, Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins said she largely expected budget negotiations to go to a bilateral conference committee, where the differences between the Senate’s appropriations bills and the House’s would be hashed out.
But the document likely sets the stage for a new test of McCarthy’s leadership. The chairman of the Republican Study Committee, Oklahoma Republican Kevin Hern, received several votes as an alternative candidate against McCarthy during his January fight for the gavel. And House Majority Leader Steve Scalise—McCarthy’s second-in-command who once coveted the speaker’s gavel himself—serves as a member of the RSC’s leadership team.
Newsweek has reached out to McCarthy’s office for comment.