Republicans, Dems gird for battle over entitlement programs

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Profound differences between House and Senate Republicans may play as big a role as GOP fights with Democrats on how the legislative agenda plays out when Congress returns in January.

However, the slim Republican majority in the Senate may act as a brake on significant change, particularly in contentious areas surrounding healthcare and related entitlement programs.

With the tax plan now law, House Speaker Paul Ryan has set his sights on another long-held Republican goal: reforming safety-net standbys such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, popularly known as welfare and food stamps, and used by millions of poor, disabled and elderly Americans. Ryan also spoke, on December 6 of overhauling Medicare, calling it the “biggest entitlement.”

But in the Senate, the chamber’s rules give minority Democrats significant leverage to bottle up proceedings. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, recognizing that reality, shot down the idea of attempting to jam through Republican-only legislation.

“There’s not much you can do on a partisan basis in the Senate with 52-48 or at 51-49, which would be the number of us for next year,” McConnell said at a news conference on December 22. “I don’t think most of our Democratic colleagues want to do nothing, and there are areas where I think we can get bipartisan agreement.”

He’s all but rejected the idea of another attempt to repeal Obamacare or taking on reform of welfare programs or so-called entitlement programs like Medicare. McConnell said such attempts can only be successful when both parties agree on the terms—for example, as in the case of changes to Social Security made under President Ronald Reagan.

McConnell appears to recognize how difficult it would be to get 51 Senators to agree on changes to programs, like food stamps, that help individuals and families facing hardship, let alone on Social Security, which pays benefits to tens of millions of retired workers and their dependents, as well as to millions more disabled workers and others.

That means Republicans could need help from Democrats even on bills moving through the budget reconciliation process to fast-track passage with only a simple majority. More contentious measures would be likely to face Democratic filibusters.

As a candidate, Trump promised repeatedly that he wouldn’t cut Medicare, the provides health insurance for older Americans or Social Security. Other safety-net programs may be fair game, though.

Mandatory spending—funds not appropriated by Congress—on programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid represents more than half of U.S. government outlays.

In the House, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has made it clear she doesn’t plan to help Republicans hunt for savings in those areas. Pelosi pushed back hard on the Republican fiscal argument of using the revenue lost to their massive tax cuts as an excuse to shrink the size of government. “This is part of the ‘starve the beast’ value system that the Republicans have,” Pelosi said. “They do not believe in governance, so any public role in the health and well-being of the American people is on their hit list.”

Bloomberg News