WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden took aim at Republicans at several points in his State of the Union address, but he provoked the fiercest reaction when he said some in the party want to gut Medicare and Social Security.
“Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share, some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset,” Biden said, referring to a means by which government programs end without votes in Congress.
At that, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., sitting behind Biden in the House chamber, conspicuously shook his head no.
“Let me give you — anybody who doubts it contact my office,” Biden continued. “I’ll give you a copy of the proposal.”
Boos rained down.
McCarthy had warned House Republicans before the address that they needed to show decorum throughout Biden’s appearance. But fellow Republicans did little to hide their pique. Some GOP lawmakers loudly shouted, “No!”
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., sitting in the back of the chamber, yelled, “Liar!”
Biden appears to have been referring to a proposal last year from Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, then the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Tucked into a policy manifesto Scott released was the line: “All federal legislation sunsets in five years. If a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again.”
Democrats seized on the language as proof that the GOP wanted to do away with popular pieces of the nation’s social safety net. Even some Republicans joined in the criticism of Scott. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky later told reporters that Scott’s recommendation “will not be part of the Republican Senate majority agenda.”
In an interview after the speech, Scott said of Biden: “First off, he’s a liar.”
Scott said that he doesn’t favor Social Security or Medicare cuts but that benefits will be reduced unless the programs are shored up financially.
“He’s been lying about me for a year,” Scott added.
Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., was more critical of his own party’s heckling.
“You should never do that sort of stuff. When he did come out and say the bit about we’re trying to cut Social Security, that drew a round of boos, and I thought that was pretty fair. But the catcalling I didn’t really like,” LaMalfa said. “I understand the frustration, but it really isn’t how — in order to conduct the business of the institution — how we should do it.”
Biden seemed unfazed by the uproar in the chamber, and Democrats seized on every chance to stand and applaud him. “You tell ’em, Joe!” Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., said.
After the address, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., suggested in an interview that she wasn’t surprised by the heckling.
“We know that they have people who are totally disrespectful of anything and everybody,” she said. “And so, he didn’t take the bait.”
Before the speech, White House aides emphasized that Biden would put forward a unifying message. In a briefing with reporters Tuesday morning, administration officials highlighted the issues Biden would mention that deserved bipartisan support: mental health, veterans’ housing and a cancer cure, among them.
Yet Biden also peppered the 72-minute address with pointed jabs at Republicans.
He suggested that some were hypocrites for having voted against his infrastructure spending legislation and — once the measure passed — requesting funds for their own districts.
“We’ll fund your projects. And I’ll see you at the ground-breaking,” Biden said.
Biden spoke against the backdrop of a 2024 presidential race that is starting to take shape. Former President Donald Trump, the only major Republican to have declared his candidacy thus far, gave a running commentary on the speech on his social media site.
“Keeps using the word ‘Folks’ — must be a nervous habit!” Trump wrote.
Trump’s former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who is now the governor of Arkansas, delivered the official Republican rebuttal to Biden’s speech.
At no point did Biden reveal his re-election plans. But he didn’t sound like a president preparing to head home after a single term. A recurring sentence he used throughout the speech suggested he needs and wants a second term to enact all his policies.
“We will finish the job,” he vowed.