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Here we go again

Surprise, Surprise: Republicans Are Planning to Hold the Debt Ceiling Hostage—Again

They’re risking catastrophe so they can cut Medicare and Social Security.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Florida Senator Rick Scott, one of many Republicans who have floated cuts to Medicare and Social Security.

Speaking to NBC’s Chuck Todd days before the 2022 midterms, Florida Senator—and chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee—Rick Scott insisted that his party had no interest in cutting Social Security or Medicare. “I have no interest in changing the Medicare program. I want to make sure we preserve the benefits of Medicare and Social Security. I don’t know one Republican who wants to change that,” Scott said, though he also noted that both programs were “going bankrupt.” 

At the time, Scott was doing cleanup work. In August, his fellow Republican Senator Ron Johnson had proposed moving Social Security and Medicare into Congress’s discretionary spending budget, making them subject to yearly approval. “If you qualify for the entitlement, you just get it no matter what the cost,” Johnson said disapprovingly. “And our problem in this country is that more than 70 percent of our federal budget, of our federal spending, is all mandatory spending. It’s on automatic pilot. It never—you just don’t do proper oversight. You don’t get in there and fix the programs going bankrupt. It’s just on automatic pilot.” By making these benefits subject to annual approval, Johnson and Republicans would be able to take them hostage on a yearly basis, using these earned benefit programs, which provide security to tens of millions, as bargaining chips for spending cuts. 

In early November, Scott was simply trying to safeguard what he and other Republicans assumed would be a wave election in their favor. He was also trying to guard against the possibility that he might have a hand in undoing the expected election night victory. You see, Johnson’s comments helped to resurface Scott’s own scheme for Social Security and Medicare, which had a similar mechanism to put it in constant danger: One of the more controversial components of his 11-point “Rescue America” plan was a proposal to sunset every piece of federal legislation, including Social Security and Medicare, every five years. Republicans had until that point spoken fairly openly about their desire to slash the country’s entitlement programs, but Scott was being too slick. Like Johnson, he was still more than happy to use misleading claims about Social Security “going bankrupt” as an impetus for reform; to save the programs, you had to destroy them. 

A month later, the political environment looks very different. That red wave never materialized, and continued Democratic control of the Senate assured that no Republican’s 11-point plan would be coming to fruition anytime soon. But Scott and his fellow Republicans are hardly chastened. They may not have gotten the votes to enact sweeping changes to America’s social welfare programs, but they have a familiar strategy to fall back on: holding the debt ceiling hostage in an effort to force the administration to enact drastic cuts. 

“There’s a set of solutions there that we really need to take on if we’re going to get serious about making these programs sustainable and getting this debt bomb at a manageable level before it’s too late,” John Thune, who currently serves as the GOP’s minority whip, told Bloomberg on Tuesday. “Typically, I think there’s been a pretty broad bipartisan understanding that default’s not an option. 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.”

Like Scott and Johnson before him, Thune is speaking quite openly. Time is ticking down to extend the debt limit; the current deadline is December 16. With that less than three weeks away, Republicans see an opportunity to force a round of hostage negotiations. Default could be economically catastrophic—just the threat of default can be costly. Republicans have suggested that any number of changes could be put on the table, including raising the retirement age to 70.  

But these ideas are politically unpopular, hence the debt ceiling brinkmanship; there’d be no countenancing these radical moves absent an extortion attempt at a delicate moment. For Republicans, it is a return to familiar—and consequential—cynicism: They know the risks of default, and they don’t care. At the same time, for Democrats, it’s a wake-up call that’s already rung several times without being properly answered: The debt ceiling is a dangerous political prop, consistently used by Republicans in bad-faith ways, and it needs to be either raised so high that it won’t be an issue for years or abolished altogether. 

Unfortunately, Democrats are overly concerned about the political optics of such a move—that it would label them as reckless spenders and provide a gift to Republicans, who are radical but try to present themselves as practical. (The GOP has adopted an Orwellian set of claims about the programs, claiming, as Scott did, that all they really want to do is “strengthen” and “shore up” the program.) Lacking the political courage to do what’s right, Democrats will have to white-knuckle it, hoping that there are enough Republicans in the House and Senate to get a deal done before the December 16 deadline. And then, some months from now, they’ll get to do it all over again.