Democrats warned Wednesday that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's comments about how Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security were large contributors to the deficit mean Republicans would be targeting those programs to fund their tax cuts, and said they would hammer away at that message before Election Day.
"All of our candidates will be letting voters know of their plan to cut Social Security and Medicare," said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.
In an interview with Bloomberg TV on Tuesday, McConnell, R-Ky., did not say that Republicans would cut the programs. But he did cite “bipartisan reluctance” to reform federal entitlement programs for the rising federal deficit, which the Treasury Department said Monday reached $779 billion in 2018.
“Hopefully at some point here, we’ll get serious about this," McConnell said. "We haven’t been yet.”
Democrats seized on his comments to say that the programs would be under attack by Republicans. Sen. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., the top Democrat on the Budget Committee, accused McConnell of "calling for dramatic cuts" to the programs to give tax breaks to the "richest Americans and American corporations."
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said McConnell's comments showed Democratic predictions that Republicans would next turn to cutting the programs were accurate, and said seniors and vulnerable families would be targeted.
"Now the numbers are in and the deficit has grown by leaps and bounds," he said.
When they passed the tax bill last year, congressional Republicans agreed to allow an increase in deficits over a decade by up to $1.5 trillion. They argued that a growing economy would help the tax cuts pay for themselves.
But others dismissed that analysis, and the Treasury Department reported Monday that the federal budget deficit rose to $779 billion for fiscal year 2018, the largest shortfall since 2012.
Republicans and Democrats have long blamed each other for the national debt, which reached $21 trillion in 2018. Democrats, who deflected Republican criticism of deficits and the national debt for years under President Obama, attacked last year’s tax law over the estimated amount of money it added to the debt.
"We see the other part of the tap dance: Step one, drive up the deficits and debt. Step two, say 'Oh my goodness, now we have to cut these programs,'" Van Hollen said.
McConnell also said during his interview that the Obama administration missed a window of opportunity to reform programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, which account for about 70 percent of what the federal government spends annually.
“I think it would be safe to say that the single biggest disappointment of my time in Congress has been our failure to address the entitlement issue, and it’s a shame, because now the Democrats are promising ‘Medicare for all,”’ he said. “I mean, my gosh, we can’t sustain the Medicare we have at the rate we’re going and that’s the height of irresponsibility."
Cardin pushed back on McConnell's comments that entitlement spending was causing the rise in the deficit, instead placing the blame on tax cuts.
It's not clear whether the Trump administration or congressional Republicans are planning to introduce reforms to entitlement programs. President Trump told the Associated Press on Tuesday on Tuesday that he will not sign a bill that would make changes to Social Security.
"I'm leaving Social Security," he said. "I'm not touching Social Security."
Democrats demurred over questions as to whether reforming the programs was on the table, saying that instead they should work to roll back the GOP tax cuts and to allow the government to set the prices of drugs to reduce healthcare spending.