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Trump’s Hill backers often voted like DeSantis on entitlements

Many still favor changes to major retirement benefit programs

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) speaks during a convocation at Liberty University's Vines Center in Lynchburg, Va., on April 14.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) speaks during a convocation at Liberty University's Vines Center in Lynchburg, Va., on April 14. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Former President Donald Trump’s campaign to win back his old office has targeted potential rival Ron DeSantis’ congressional votes on budgets that endorsed changes in Social Security and Medicare benefits.

In doing so, he’s indirectly implicated his own supporters who voted the same way as the Florida governor when they were colleagues in the House during DeSantis’ tenure from 2013 through 2018. In fact, before Trump came on the scene, such fiscal policy positions were more or less GOP orthodoxy.

Trump backers, like Rep. Michael C. Burgess, R-Texas, say there’s no contradiction. Burgess said he endorsed Trump in part because of his approach to health care, in particular a 2020 price transparency rule that requires health care plans to disclose pricing and cost-sharing information to patients.

Another reason is foreign policy. “I’m truly frightened about what is going on in the world right now,” Burgess said. “[Trump] could be obnoxious to people, but at the same time everyone knew where he stood and no one was going to try any funny stuff.”

Burgess said he supports changes to Medicare and Social Security because “if you just continue down the path without doing anything, bad things are going to happen to beneficiaries.”

Like Burgess, many Republicans still favor changes to slow the growth of the major benefit programs for seniors, the largest and fastest-growing parts of the federal budget. Just not right now.

That’s partly due to Democrats’ partisan attacks, but it’s also a recognition that the politics have changed since Trump rearranged his party’s priorities.

House Republicans took Medicare and Social Security benefits off the table in this year’s debt ceiling talks, preferring to focus on the “woke and weaponized” discretionary spending targeted in the budget plan written by Trump’s Office of Management and Budget director, Russ Vought.

That blueprint makes a point of leaving alone Social Security and Medicare benefits, which Vought refers to as “earned entitlements” that Americans have paid into.

DeSantis himself has changed his tune. In response to Trump campaign broadsides last month, a DeSantis-affiliated super PAC aired an ad pointing to the governor’s recent statement that “we’re not going to mess with Social Security,” along with older Trump comments that “at some point we will take a look at” entitlements.

Earlier, the Trump campaign cut an ad riffing on DeSantis’ reported affinity for chocolate pudding. The governor “loves to stick his fingers where they don’t belong — and we’re not just talking about pudding. DeSantis has his dirty fingers all over senior entitlements,” the narrator intones.

House votes

The Trump campaign cites multiple votes cast by DeSantis as evidence he favored raising the retirement age for Social Security and Medicare, cutting Social Security benefits by imposing a different cost-of-living formula, turning Medicare into what opponents call a “voucher program” and cutting Medicare benefits in general.

All the votes were on nonbinding budget resolutions that never become law but are used to shape fiscal policy. Even if those resolutions are adopted, as some were, they cannot alter Social Security or Medicare on their own.

Along with Burgess, other GOP lawmakers who’ve endorsed Trump and usually voted the same way as DeSantis on budgets include Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn and Oklahoma Sen. Markwayne Mullin, who were in the House at the time; and Reps. Chuck Fleischmann of Tennessee, Paul Gosar of Arizona, Pete Sessions of Texas, Vern Buchanan of Florida and Joe Wilson of South Carolina. They include one of Trump’s most vocal advocates: House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio.

“My views have not changed,” Sessions said of dealing with the trajectory of Social Security. “I am for solving the problem, not kicking it down the road another five or 10 years.”

He and Trump may not agree on entitlement policy, but Sessions supports him because “we need a good person who will help us move forward.”

Rep.s Michael Burgess, left, and Pete Sessions, both R-Texas, display Texas temporary tattoos to mark Texas Independence Day. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Fleischmann said he would have to “examine each and every one of those votes” he took that included the entitlement policies. In some cases, he said, he voted for measures that “had things in there that I found particularly odious” because of the “overall good” of the bill.

But Fleischmann, a senior member of the Appropriations panel that oversees discretionary spending, also said he sees a need to address “the drivers of the debt where it will continue unabated regardless of what we do on the discretionary side.” By which he means, in short, entitlement programs.

Ryan-era roots

The policies Trump criticizes had their roots in the House GOP takeover after their 2010 midterm victory. Wisconsin Rep. Paul D. Ryan became chairman of the Budget Committee and wrote a fiscal 2012 budget resolution that envisioned restructuring Medicare into a “premium support” system.

The idea was that private health care providers would offer competing plans to Medicare beneficiaries, who would be able to choose a plan and pay for it with a federal subsidy. Ryan said the competition would slow the growth of costs in the program and improve quality.

Rep. Paul D. Ryan as chairman of the Budget Committee sought to restructure Medicare into a “premium support” system in which private health care providers would offer competing plans. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

That was a key part of a budget that also proposed to cut spending, put the government on a path to a balanced budget, shrink the size of government, lower taxes and convert Medicaid into a federal block grant program.

Most Republicans embraced the basic elements of the approach, which continued under GOP budget resolutions over the next several years.

In 2015, for example, only 17 Republicans voted against the House’s fiscal 2016 budget resolution, which the Trump campaign charges would have turned Medicare into a voucher program and raised the eligibility age for Medicare. That budget blueprint did support transition to a premium support system. It also proposed as a “policy option” to gradually raise the Medicare eligibility age to match that of Social Security.

Importantly, the only major provision in that resolution with any real teeth was its reconciliation instructions to produce legislation repealing much of Obama’s health care law that could short-circuit a Senate filibuster. Obama later vetoed the measure, which mostly unified Republicans at the time.

Current declared Trump supporters who were in the House at that time voted for that budget, including Blackburn, Brian Babin of Texas, Mike Bost of Illinois, Buchanan, Burgess, John Carter of Texas, Fleischmann, Gosar, Richard Hudson of North Carolina, Jordan, Alex X. Mooney of West Virginia, Mullin, Sessions, Roger Williams of Texas, Wilson, and Elise Stefanik of New York, currently the House Republican Conference chair.

In those years, alternative budgets offered by the Republican Study Committee went farther and drew less GOP support. The conservative group’s fiscal 2016 resolution envisioned raising the Social Security full retirement age to 70 and applying a “chained” measure of the consumer price index to the program, which would generally result in smaller cost-of-living increases.

While 132 Republicans supported that budget, 112 did not. Most of today’s Trump supporters voted in favor of it. Exceptions include Bost, Buchanan, Mooney and Stefanik.

New York Rep. Elisa Stefanik is among the Republicans now supporting Trump who voted for a budget he cites in ads attacking his potential rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Another vote the Trump campaign cited was on the fiscal 2018 budget resolution, claiming DeSantis voted to “cut Medicare benefits.”

The original House version of that blueprint laid out several policy options, including raising the Medicare eligibility age to 67 to align it with Social Security, means-testing Medicare premiums for wealthier seniors and moving to a premium support option. All but 18 Republicans voted for that measure; among those, only Florida’s Brian Mast has endorsed Trump.

The final version the House voted on, previously adopted by the Senate, dropped the Medicare policy language.

On that final blueprint, 20 Republicans voted no, including Trump endorsers Stefanik and Matt Gaetz, R-Fla. At the time, Gaetz issued a release blasting the “liberal Senate budget” for adding to the deficit and dropping mandatory spending cuts.

Stefanik voted no because that budget document, which Trump’s campaign is now targeting, was the vehicle for reconciliation instructions that laid the groundwork for the former president’s own signature 2017 tax cuts. Republicans capped state and local tax deductions valuable to Stefanik’s constituents in that tax law, which she also ultimately voted against.

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