By Sylvan Lane - 02-09-17 06:00 AM EST
A key House conservative says he's confident reforms to Medicare and Social Security can happen with President Trump in the White House.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, said Democratic efforts to tie Trump to campaign comments about preserving entitlement programs miss the mark, and that his talks with Trump show the president is prepared to back entitlement reform so long as current beneficiaries don't see their benefits cut.
Exactly what Trump will or won't do with entitlement programs has been a major question in Washington, with Republicans eager to move but wary of breaking with the new president.
Trump's decision to nominate as his budget director Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), another Freedom Caucus member known for backing big spending cuts, has also raised questions about Trump's real motivations.
Meadows, who said he has talked to Trump about entitlements and spending, believes that with Republicans in charge of Congress and the White House, it is a critical time to take action. And he sees Trump as an ally in that effort.
"Some people are taking his comments to say he doesn't want to look at anything on entitlement reform," said Meadows. "In my conversations with him, that was not the case. It was more about the benefits that seniors have earned currently."
As a candidate, Trump promised to "save Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security without cuts."
"Have to do it. Get rid of the fraud. Get rid of the waste and abuse, but save it," he said when he launched his campaign in June 2015.
Trump also sought to contrast himself with other Republican presidential candidates, several of whom are Republican members of Congress who had backed budgets making changes to entitlements.
"People have been paying it for years. And now many of these candidates want to cut it. You save it by making the United States, by making us rich again, by taking back all of the money that's being lost," he said from Trump Tower.
Trump hasn't offered a plan on entitlements since taking office, and his first top-line budget is weeks away. Mulvaney has yet to be confirmed by the Senate.
In his own confirmation hearing, Mulvaney didn't back away from his past support for entitlement reform and promised to give Trump his counsel on the issue. He also, however, said that he would defend whatever decision Trump makes.
Steven Mnuchin, Trump's Treasury secretary nominee, said in his hearing that he supports Trump's promise not to cut entitlement benefits, but he wouldn't specify how he'd advise Trump to salvage the programs.
Mnuchin would become a Social Security and Medicare trustee upon confirmation, charged with managing the program's trust funds.
Congressional Republicans have advocated reforms to Social Security and Medicare, arguing an overhaul is necessary to save them for future generations.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects the Social Security and Medicare trust funds will become insolvent in 2034 and 2028, respectively, forcing them to cut benefits.
Trump has pledged to reduce U.S. deficits and debt but has mostly talked of doing this through signing better deals, increasing the size of the economy and eliminating waste.
Economists say it will be difficult to take a chunk out of the $19.9 trillion debt without tackling entitlements.
"You're not getting around the need for Social Security and healthcare reform with economic growth," said Romina Boccia, an economist at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Meadows said entitlement reform that could cut the benefits for younger workers is possible with Trump in office.
"The reform that I've looked at is really doing exactly what he says: keeping the benefits for those seniors and those who are about to retire in place and intact, and then modifying entitlements over time and making those reforms as it hits the generations to come," he said.
"That's not to say someone who is 35 or 40 with an expectation that they qualify for those programs at a later date with modifications over time would not be pushed away by the Trump administration," added Meadows.
A number of Trump's other priorities could be expensive.
He has vowed to cut taxes, expand the military and build a border wall that could cost up to $25 billion.
Trump also campaigned on a promise to boost infrastructure spending, though he has emphasized the use of tax credits that would spark private investments.
The calls for new spending have been noticed by Republicans in Congress who are worried it could increase deficits.
"Any massive expenditure would do that - of course we're concerned," said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), one of Trump's rivals during the primaries.
He said Trump's team knows of his worries.
"They're aware of not just my concerns, but of anyone who cares about the debt," he said.
Though federal revenue is expected to rise from 17.8 percent to 18.4 percent of gross domestic product in the next 10 years, according to the CBO, federal spending is projected to spike from nearly 20.3 percent to 23.4 percent, almost entirely due to Social Security and Medicaid.
Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), a Freedom Caucus member who criticized Trump throughout the campaign, said he doesn't believe Trump will actually take on the politically tricky task of entitlement reform.
"No. He said he won't," Sanford told The Hill. "Now, it could well be that it's one of those political promises that goes by the wayside. He promised to release his tax returns."
Others warn Trump that if he wants money for a border wall or a host of infrastructure projects, he will also need to deliver spending cuts to offset the tab.
"[Trump] understands that we have a problem with debt, and I think we need to see what he proposes," said Rep. Ra l Labrador (R-Idaho), a Freedom Caucus co-founder. "If it's a good idea, I'm going to vote for it as long as it's paid for."
"When there are efforts to exceed the spending that I think is appropriate and reasonable, I'm going to push back against that," said Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) "I plan to be consistently conservative, which means that the president comes with a very large spending package that's unpaid, I'm going to have trouble with it."