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Social Security: Republicans keep wading into the 'third rail of American politics'

Social Security has become a predictable talking point for Democrats heading into the midterms, but some Republicans have also been surprisingly eager to engage on the hot-button topic.

While many GOP leaders have tried to stay mum on the so-called “third rail of American politics,” other Republican figures have waded in.

The latest example came this week from Rep. Buddy Carter (R-GA), who's running to be the top Republican on the House Budget Committee next year. In an interview with Punchbowl News, he discussed Social Security reform and opened the door to the possibility of future benefit cuts.

“I am not suggesting anyone who’s on Social Security right now have their benefits cut,” he told the outlet. But for future retirees, he added, “There are ways that we can address [the looming insolvency of the program] and make it sustainable.”

U.S. Representative Buddy Carter (R-GA) addresses U.S. Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young during a U.S. House Budget Committee hearing on U.S. President Joe Biden's budget plan for the fiscal year 2023, in Washington, U.S., March 29, 2022. Roberto Schmidt/Pool via REUTERS
Rep. Buddy Carter (R-GA) is running to oversee the House Budget Committee if Republicans take control of Congress next year. (Roberto Schmidt/Pool via REUTERS)

The willingness of Republicans like him to engage on the issue is notable because of the popularity of the entitlement programs — which primarily benefit older citizens, a crucial voting bloc for both parties.

Blake Masters, who's in a tight Senate race in Arizona, even floated the idea of privatizing Social Security during a forum in June before walking back those comments.

Senate Republican campaign chair Rick Scott (R-FL) also released a plan in February that included a requirement for Congress to review “all federal legislation” — including Social Security and Medicare — every five years. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) has gone further and suggested that re-funding the programs should happen each year.

The rollout of the House Republicans’ “Commitment to America” last week included a vow to “Save and strengthen Social Security and Medicare” without providing any further information on how they might approach the issue.

‘You’ve been paying into Social Security’

The sacredness of Social Security has been an increasing theme among Democrats in recent years. Bernie Sanders campaigned on raising benefits when he ran for president in 2020. Biden echoed some of the Vermont Senator’s language, marking a change from previously being open to "freezing" the program.

The reality is that lawmakers will have hard choices to make about both Social Security and Medicare in the years ahead, no matter what they are saying on the campaign trail this year. The reserve funds for both programs face long-term shortfalls which, with no action, could lead to reduced benefits beginning in 2028 for Medicare and 2034 for Social Security.

Democrats have argued in recent years the programs should receive more, not less, money — attacking even suggestions from the GOP that cutbacks might be necessary.

On Tuesday, influential Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) held a colloquy on Social Security on the Senate floor, responding to what they called GOP "attempts to end the program."

That same day, President Biden made sure to bring up Social Security during a speech focused on health care costs and Medicare at the White House's Rose Garden.

“You’ve been paying into Social Security since that first job as a teenager,” Biden said, calling out both Sens. Scott and Johnson by name. “I’ll protect those programs, I’ll make them stronger."

US President Joe Biden, holding a pamphlet by US Republican Senator  Scott titled
President Joe Biden held a pamphlet from Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) during a speech about health care costs and Medicare and Social Security at the White House Tuesday. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Democratic ads on Social Security running around the U.S. have accompanied the messaging from Washington. In one example, a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ad highlights the comments from Blake Masters in Arizona, claiming he “wants to gamble it in the stock market.”

And it might be working, at least in some instances. In Arizona, a poll out last week found 10% of likely voters over 50 years old cited “Social Security/Medicare” as the issue "personally most important" to them when casting their Senate ballots. Still, the entitlements trailed immigration (16%), inflation (14%), and abortion (12%).

Ben Werschkul is a Washington correspondent for Yahoo Finance.

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