Republicans warm to Social Security, Medicare reform as 2024 election nears

Lawmakers have long shied away from serious discussions about entitlement reform, but the issue appears to be coming back into focus for Republicans who are wary about the growing national debt.

"I definitely have noticed it," veteran GOP strategist Doug Heye told Fox News Digital of the uptick in GOP-led discussions on the issue. "Republicans have talked about this for a long time, not always with specifics. But what tends to happen is, they talk about it, they get attacked, they fall back."

Congress just ended the fiscal year 2024 government-funding fight with President Biden signing a $1.2 trillion spending package into law last week and averting a partial government shutdown. But the ugly battle, which took six additional months after the end of fiscal year 2023, only accounted for the government’s discretionary spending – which makes up just over a quarter of annual federal funds.

The vast majority of federal funding is classified as mandatory spending, which includes entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), known colloquially as "food stamps."


Discussions about raising the Social Security eligibility age or cuts to Medicare are always politically fraught. But economists are now warning that without changes, those programs are headed for forced cuts anyway, due to insufficient funds – with Medicare expected to become insolvent in 2028, and Social Security in 2033.

"I do think we should be willing to have real conversations about this, but I wouldn’t say this is a new issue," Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., chair of the pragmatic House Main Street Caucus, told Fox News Digital.

Johnson noted that "every ten years" or so, Washington officials assemble task forces and commissions to discuss the national debt or the solvency of programs like Social Security and Medicare.


"I think what is maybe ripening this issue a bit more now is the [threat of insolvency]," he said. "It is closer than ever."

Johnson himself has led the charge in pushing for work requirements for federal food benefits, something Democrats have used as a political cudgel, despite the programs’ ballooning costs. But in recent months, more Republicans are declaring their support for curbing entitlements.

Meanwhile, House Rules Committee Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., openly called for entitlement reform in his announcement that he would be running for House Appropriations chair.

"You cannot solve the U.S. deficit problem exclusively in the Appropriations Committee, as discretionary spending only amounts to roughly 28 percent of U.S. expenditures," Cole said earlier this month. "If we are going to produce a balanced budget, which I strongly believe we should be striving to do, we should be having serious discussions on how to fund and reform our entitlement programs, which makes up approximately 60 percent of all spending."

The Republican Study Committee, a 175-member House GOP group led by Rep. Kevin Hern, R-Okla., recently released a budget proposal that called for raising the "retirement age for future retirees to account for increases in life expectancy" as well as restructuring Medicare to compete with private options.

Democrats up to the White House pounced on the proposal, accusing Republicans of trying to gut Social Security and Medicare. Seizing on the looming November election as well, Biden’s campaign has sought to link any Republican victory to deep cuts to the programs.


House Freedom Caucus Chairman Bob Good, R-Va., told Fox News Digital that he expects that Republicans will take on entitlement reform if they win the White House, House and Senate.

"My hope would be that if we have full control of government that we will take the steps necessary to preserve and protect Social Security and Medicare for the current retirees who are depending on it, those nearing retirement, depending on the next few years, [and] so that it's there also for people like you," Good said.

Former President Donald Trump, the presumed GOP nominee for 2024, has not been explicit about his stance regarding entitlement reform. 

He told CNBC earlier this month that "there is a lot you can do in terms of entitlements, in terms of cutting." His spokesperson, Karoline Leavitt, later told NBC News, "President Trump will continue to strongly protect Social Security and Medicare in his second term."

But Paul Winfree, Trump’s former White House budget policy director and current president of the Economic Policy Innovation Center (EPIC), backed entitlement reform to reduce the national deficit and save the programs themselves.

"Interest rates are significantly higher and so too are debt service payments. At the same time, the Fed has had a hard time getting inflation fully under control," Winfree told Fox News Digital. "Those are market signals that the deficit really needs to come down. And the sooner policymakers begin to confront the biggest drivers of the deficit, specifically what is spent on federal health programs, the more likely it will be that they can protect programs for the most vulnerable."

The federal government spent $2.2 trillion on Social Security and Medicare in 2023, according to the Congressional Budget Office, out of $3.8 trillion in mandatory spending.

Strategist Doug Heye, who’s pessimistic about the talk becoming action, suggested that it was precisely because reforms seem too out of reach that Republicans are able to be vocal.

"Entitlement reform, depending on who you talk to, is – it's a tool to show either voters or portions of conservative media that you're fighting, and it doesn't mean that any of this is going to happen. In fact, that's sort of irrelevant to the process, showing the willingness to fight becomes paramount," Heye explained.