GOP Threatens to Hold Federal Debt Limit Hostage to Force Social Security, Medicare Cuts

Interview with Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, conducted by Scott Harris

During the 2022 midterm election campaign, Republican Party leaders made clear that if they won control of the House of Representatives, they intended to use upcoming negotiations on the federal debt ceiling to force cuts to Social Security and Medicare.  Now that the GOP is set to take control of the House on Jan. 3 with a very narrow majority, Democrats are gearing up for a nasty fight where breach of the debt ceiling could have catastrophic effects on the economy and any concessions made on Social Security and Medicare would erode the nation’s popular social safety net programs.

Congressional Republicans have embraced plans to reduce federal spending on Social Security and Medicare, including cutting benefits for some retirees, raising the retirement age for both programs and requiring many older Americans to pay higher premiums for their health coverage. In response to the Republican threat, President Biden has repeatedly said he won’t agree to any cuts to Social Security, which provides retirement and disability payments to 66 million Americans or to Medicare, which provides health insurance to about 64 million people.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works. Here he discusses his group’s stand on stopping the Republican party from holding the federal debt limit hostage to force cuts to Social Security and Medicare and his call to Democrats to do everything possible to protect these essential programs millions rely on  and aggressively push back against all attempts to be blackmailed into surrender or compromise.

ALEX LAWSON: They want to steal our money and give it to their criminal friends on Wall Street. And the way they do that is by cutting our Social Security benefits. We all know that no one gives us our Social Security. We earn it. It’s our money. We see it coming out of our paychecks. That’s our money.

So if they cut it either now or in the future, they’re literally reaching their hands in our pockets and stealing our money. And that’s their goal. So how they do it? By hook or by crook, they take any opportunity. The debt ceiling is sort of their most powerful play. So I want to go into it, but not get way lost in the debt ceiling itself, because it’s important to just get everyone to understand that this is a Social Security fight.

And so we have to defeat them totally and completely because we can’t let even a single penny of benefit cuts happen. But what the debt ceiling is, is it’s this weird trick in the law. It makes no sense. We’re the only country that has it and it just allows the majority party — even if they just hold the House — what they can do is hold up the ability not to spend money. The money’s already been spent, but is basically to pay the bill of the money that we already spent. We have the money to do it, but they can actually just through process, hold it up.

And we saw them do this before in the Obama age of austerity, when you had the Tea Party ride in in 2010. And the first thing they did was they started getting their knives out for Social Security and they held the debt ceiling hostage. So we know exactly what their playbook is. And the reason that it’s so powerful is because even the brinksmanship of holding the debt ceiling hostage — not actually going over the debt ceiling — but just the brinksmanship of holding it hostage, had S&P ratings downgrade U.S. sovereign debt at the time and they made it really clear in their note.

It was not because of the United States’ ability to pay. We’re the richest country in the world. We can clearly pay. It was just that the political system allowed us to default on our obligations. And that’s what the Republicans hold hostage. They say, “We’re going to default on our obligations unless you cut Social Security benefits.”

And what happens then is then we’re fighting on their turf. Right? And then the compromise is like, “Oh, well, we’ll give them a little bit of a cut. Maybe it’s not to Social Security, maybe it’s to so-called discretionary programs. Or it’s the sequester,” if you remember that blast from the past. Just all this evil policy becomes compromise. And so going into this showdown, what we’re saying is “Social Security v. no compromise. A clean debt ceiling raised.” They’re not doing anyone any favors by paying our bills, that’s our obligation.

SCOTT HARRIS: Alex, what’s the response to the Republicans about the need for austerity, the need for cuts in Social Security and Medicare? How do you respond to their call that the federal government shouldn’t be spending this much money and we have to cut back?

ALEX LAWSON: They’re a bunch of craven liars. I mean, they love spending money. They spend so much money when they are in power. They have nothing against spending money. As long as it’s spending money, a firehose of money into their criminal friends on Wall Street, the pocket. That’s what the so-called tax cut is. That’s a spend. That’s just redistributing our wealth upward. So it’s a fake thing.

They pretend it’s about restraining spending or it’s all B.S. That’s just all theater that they are doing. What they’re actually doing is competing for their major donors. They’re competing for the billionaires who’ve called the tunes that they dance to.

And so what we have to do, Social Security Works is working with grassroots people, everyone that we can. We need to do a couple of things, get all the Democrats in Congress to pledge that they’re not going to accept a single penny of cuts as some sort of compromise. We’re going to run a pledge campaign. We’re already starting it. We’re going to go to every single member of Congress, Democrat and Republican, because we have to get Democrats to promise that they’re not going to allow a single penny of cuts.

And we have to get Republicans on the record because that’s their main game, still, as they’re doing this. They’re out every day trying to destroy Social Security. They look square into the camera on Fox News and they’re like, “We’re not doing that.” They just lie about it. Their constituents overwhelmingly reject any cuts to Social Security. This is not a partisan issue.

It does not matter if you’re in deep red MAGA country. They hate people coming after their social Security as much as people who drive electric cars in Berkeley do. It’s a universally loved program.

For more information, visit Social Security Works at

Listen to Scott Harris’ in-depth interview with Alex Larson (17:54) and see more articles and opinion pieces in the Related Links section of this page.

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