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Democrats Spin McConnell Entitlement Comments Into Political Messaging

McConnell says Republicans cannot tackle program on their own but Democrats warn of GOP action

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., says a vote for the GOP is a vote to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, spinning Senate Majority McConnell’s comments that Republicans can’t execute that goal on their own. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., says a vote for the GOP is a vote to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, spinning Senate Majority McConnell’s comments that Republicans can’t execute that goal on their own. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Democrats are spinning comments Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently made on overhauling entitlements to craft a political message that electing Republicans will lead to cuts in safety net programs. 

“Sen. McConnell gave the game up in his comment yesterday,” Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said on a press call Wednesday. “It was very clear from what he said that a vote for Republican candidates in this election is a vote to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. That’s what he said.”

Except that is not what McConnell said in his interview with Bloomberg News. The Kentucky Republican actually said it would be difficult to overhaul those programs with only Republicans in charge. 

“I think it’s pretty safe to say that entitlement changes, which is the real driver of the debt by any objective standard, may well be difficult if not impossible to achieve when you have unified government,” the majority leader said.

It’s no secret that Republicans would like to reduce entitlement spending. Cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security have been part of GOP budgets for years. 

Van Hollen knows this. He was the ranking member of the House Budget Committee when Speaker Paul D. Ryan chaired the panel and put out budget blueprints outlining Republicans’ plans to slash safety net programs.

But like McConnell pointed out, it’s difficult for Republicans to make good on that policy aspiration on their own.

When these points were raised on the call, Van Hollen defended his assertion that, if elected, Republicans will try to push through entitlement cuts. 

“It’s absolutely fair to say the Republican plan is to come back and cut things like Medicare and Medicaid,” he said, pointing out that it was a part of their budget plans.

“They could execute this through their budget reconciliation process;  they just didn’t execute this part of it,” Van Hollen added. “And now that they’ve run up the debt, which they said they were not going to do but which they have, what he’s signaling here is they’re going to come back and finish the job. That’s certainly the way I interpret his comments.”

McConnell, however, seemed to be acknowledging that Republicans won’t have the votes to pass entitlement changes through the reconciliation process, which allows for a simple majority vote in the Senate instead of the usual 60-vote threshold. That’s how Republicans passed their tax overhaul in December 2017.

Senate Republicans have failed to use the reconciliation process to pass entitlement changes, though.

Earlier in 2017, House Republicans passed a health care bill that would have cut parts of Medicare, but the Senate didn’t have the votes to take it up. When they sought instead to move a “skinny repeal” of major pieces of the 2010 health care law, it failed by a single vote. 

Since the health care failure, McConnell has acknowledged that it would be impossible to pass entitlement changes through reconciliation with the current thin Republican majority. 

But Van Hollen seemed to be suggesting that the majority leader’s calculus may change if Republicans pick up more Senate seats in the midterms next month. 

“Whether or not people put this in ads, and they well may do that, I can assure you all of our candidates will be zeroing in on this issue,” he said.

Senate Democrats are largely on defense this cycle, trying to hold on to 10 seats in states that President Donald Trump won in 2016.

Van Hollen was joined on the press call by fellow Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Kentucky Rep. John Yarmuth, his successor as House Budget ranking member, and Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos, co-chairwoman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. 

They attacked McConnell not only for wanting to cut entitlements but for citing those programs as the reason for the rising deficit — which the White House announced Monday was $779 billion for fiscal 2018 — and ignoring the Republicans’ contributions with their $1 trillion tax overhaul. 

“It’s disappointing, but it’s not a Republican problem,” McConnell told Bloomberg News. “It’s a bipartisan problem: unwillingness to address the real drivers of the debt by doing anything to adjust those programs to the demographics of America in the future.”

McConnell “is completely ignoring the fact that it’s his tax scam, and it passed with zero Democratic votes,” Bustos said. 

Mitch McConnell is behaving something like a thief,” the Illinois Democrat added. “And even though he’s in the middle of a heist and there are millions of eye witnesses and his fingerprints are all over the crime scene, he’s still trying to convince everybody, especially the very taxpayers that he’s stealing from, that he and his accomplices didn’t do this.”

Democrats acknowledge that if they’re put in control of Congress, they don’t plan to cut entitlements to reduce the deficit. They have a different plan, which involves raising taxes and reducing health care costs.

“There are at least three elements to it,” Yarmuth said. “One would be to roll back some of the tax cuts that were passed by the Republicans, those particularly dealing with the wealthiest Americans and to some extent the corporate rates.”

The second part, he said, involves cutting some of the roughly $1 trillion in so-called tax expenditures, deductions and credits that reduce the amount of revenue government receives from taxpayers.

Third, Yarmuth said, Democrats want to invest more money in the IRS, which Republicans have targeted for cuts, so the agency can do more to collect taxes that are owed but not paid. 

Bustos and Cardin noted that Democrats also plan to lower prescription drug costs, which will lower costs for the government in addition to consumers. 

“These aren’t just election year promises,” Bustos said. “We’ve spelled this out … more than a year ago.”

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