The GOP is preparing to use next year’s debt limit talks to potentially hold the economy hostage in order to slash crucial anti-poverty programs like Social Security, according to a new interview with the Senate’s second ranking Republican.
Sen. John Thune (R-South Dakota) said that slashing such programs would be a “solution” to the national debt — an issue that Republicans only bring up in regards to liberal or left-leaning proposals and programs. Thune added that threatening a default, which would have catastrophic consequences for the economy and risk triggering a recession, could be a viable option for the party to force the cuts, Bloomberg reports.
“Typically, I think there’s been a pretty broad bipartisan understanding that default’s not an option,” Thune said. He then immediately contradicted himself, saying, “but at the same time I think there’s an understanding that this does create an opportunity especially if the pressure’s on one side to deliver that outcome.”
Currently, the debt ceiling is slated to expire sometime in the first quarter of 2023. House Republicans are on board with the plan; in October, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California) also said that the party is planning to use the debt ceiling to push through Republican priorities like slashing Social Security and Medicare.
With Republicans taking control of the House and with only a slim majority for Democrats in the Senate, Republicans have the leverage and votes to potentially force cuts to the welfare programs — something that conservatives have been working toward for decades.
The party had already engaged in political brinkmanship with the debt default last year, threatening to tank the economy over the Build Back Better Act, a bill that ultimately didn’t pass for separate reasons.
Cuts to Social Security and Medicare would be devastating for recipients and for the country at large. Social Security is consistently the most effective program in the U.S. in cutting poverty, preventing tens of millions of people from falling into poverty each year. Medicare and Medicaid are also crucial antipoverty measures, with tens of millions of people dependent on the programs for health care coverage.
Introducing cuts at a time when many people dependent on the programs are already struggling to survive could potentially cause millions more people to experience poverty, continue working far past typical retirement age just to afford basic needs, or be thrown into deep economic and personal instability due to lack of health care coverage. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) has even openly admitted that he thinks that retirees should be working.
This is a deeply unpopular stance for Republicans to take. A recent poll by Data for Progress found that 83 percent of voters oppose Republican plans to cut Social Security and Medicare, with results lining up with other polls overwhelmingly finding that voters want increases to Social Security — not cuts.
Progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) have been pushing for Congress to expand Social Security, saying that the government could easily do so by ensuring that people with higher incomes pay their fair share into the program.
Currently, while those making less than $147,000 a year pay an even 12.4 percent of their yearly incomes into the program, those making more pay a smaller proportion. This is due to the highly regressive structure of the Social Security tax, which stops taxing income above the threshold — meaning that, for instance, those making more than $1 million a year stop paying into the program by the end of February each year.
In order to avoid future conflicts over the debt ceiling — and halt Republicans’ welfare-cutting plan in its tracks — some progressive lawmakers and advocates have called for the abolition of the debt ceiling altogether. The limit “serves no function except to create leverage for people who are willing to blow up the economy,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) said earlier this month.
“Many of these new Republicans who are coming in are people who are coming in with exactly one goal: Get Donald Trump elected in 2024. And they see that if they can create chaos in the economy, then they think that may move Donald Trump one inch closer to election,” she said. “So, we’ve got to take that away from them … take care of raising the debt limit or getting rid of it altogether.”
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