Defending Plan to Re-evaluate Social Security, Rick Scott Fuels G.O.P. Feud

WASHINGTON — As the 2022 midterm election campaign took shape, Senator Rick Scott, Republican of Florida, ordered a favorite book distributed to staffers at the National Republican Senatorial Committee as he took charge of the operation. It was “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”

“I’ll bet I have given out 7,000 or 8,000 copies,” said Mr. Scott, a devoted fan of the classic self-improvement book. “I go back and read it every two or three years because it makes you just think about how to work with people.”

Whatever Mr. Scott gleaned over the years from its author, Dale Carnegie, it hasn’t worked on Mitch McConnell and some of his other colleagues. Mr. Scott, the former two-term governor of Florida, is engaged in a nasty feud with Mr. McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and minority leader, with implications for both the Senate and national politics.

Despite repeated repudiation by Mr. McConnell, the campaign manifesto that Mr. Scott issued last year that called for sunsetting and re-evaluating Social Security and Medicare — along with every other federal program — has made him a fat target of President Biden and left members of his party squirming as Democrats zero in on it as proof that Republicans want to gut the federal retirement program for seniors.

Mr. McConnell was forced to reiterate once again this week that, no matter what Mr. Scott once said, Republicans want to do no such thing.

“Let me say one more time,” he told reporters, “there is no agenda on the part of Senate Republicans to revisit Medicare or Social Security. Period.”

That criticism was restrained compared to what Mr. McConnell said last week, when he practically invited electoral opposition for Mr. Scott, who will be on the ballot next year.

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“I think it will be a challenge for him to deal with this in his own re-election in Florida, a state with more elderly people than any other state in America,” Mr. McConnell said during a Kentucky radio interview, an unusual case of a party leader underscoring the potential political vulnerability of one of his incumbents.

Undeterred, Mr. Scott began fund-raising off of Mr. McConnell’s attack. And he has refused to back down from the statement that prompted it. He says the nation’s mounting debt is so dangerous that it is irresponsible not to talk about the entirety of government spending, though he now says his main goal is to protect, not undercut, Social Security.

“We are in trouble,” he said. “I don’t get why people are not worried about $31.5 trillion worth of debt. We are putting ourselves in horrible financial shape to make sure we have money for the military, for Social Security, Medicare, all these things. I am going to keep fighting for what I believe in.”

The fight has been an unwelcome distraction and generated internal sniping among Republicans. It has been a gift for Democrats, providing them new opportunities to remind voters that Mr. Scott, as the head of an official Republican campaign group, proposed subjecting Social Security to elimination and renewal every five years along with all federal programs.

Mr. Biden’s mention of the plan set off an uproar at his State of the Union address, as Republicans accused him of lying about their position on entitlement programs.

“President Biden pointed out the obvious: that many within their own party have been very open about wanting to target Social Security and Medicare,” Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, said this week. “Rick Scott being among them, and he was the leader of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.”

The intramural Republican dispute began last year, when Mr. McConnell declined to offer a midterm campaign agenda for his party and Mr. Scott came up with one of his own. In it was a provision that “all federal legislation sunsets in 5 years. If a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again.”

Many Senate Republicans immediately viewed the plan as an enormous political blunder. Mr. McConnell dismissed it, but the words were not so easily erased from the internet.

At the White House, Mr. Biden’s top aides could not believe their luck. They scoured the document, assuming there would be an asterisk or some sort of escape hatch for Mr. Scott exempting popular programs like Medicare and Social Security. They found none.

Mr. Biden quickly jumped on the proposal, adding it to his stump speech as he campaigned for Democratic candidates during the midterm elections. When Mr. Biden spoke to a crowd in Florida recently, the White House placed a glossy pamphlet of the Scott plan on the seat of every attendee.

Allies of Mr. McConnell say one of the main reasons for his aggressive pushback to Mr. Scott in recent days is that he saw how Democrats benefited from political attacks tied to the Social Security proposal in states such as Pennsylvania and Nevada, which Senate Republicans had high hopes of winning last year but ultimately lost.

They say Mr. McConnell wants to make sure that Mr. Scott’s plan is thoroughly discredited before 2024, when Republicans will again have a strong chance of taking the Senate. They also say that Mr. Scott’s recent insistence that he would never tamper with Social Security or Medicare is proof that he recognizes he made a significant mistake last year.

Elected in 2018 by defeating Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson, Mr. Scott is an enigma to many of his colleagues. They were flabbergasted when, after presiding over the loss of a Senate seat in what was expected to be a strong Republican year, he challenged Mr. McConnell for the party leadership last year instead of retreating into the background.

Mr. McConnell handily defeated him and then bounced him from the Commerce Committee to make room for newly elected Republicans. Several Republicans also said privately that they saw his fund-raising off the contretemps as objectionable.

But his colleagues say Mr. Scott is never going to be one to go along to get along.

“He is not confined to the family tree,” said Senator Kevin Cramer, Republican of North Dakota. “He’s always been kind of independent of the party but also always Republican. I don’t question his patriotism to the elephant, but he has never been tethered to the machinery.”

Mr. Cramer and others acknowledged that Mr. Scott had sorely tested Mr. McConnell’s patience.

“When you get into political points of view that are different, when you are willing to buck city hall, you are going to get into spats like that,” said Senator Mike Braun, Republican of Indiana.

Others who backed his challenge to Mr. McConnell say they were disappointed when the minority leader publicly questioned Mr. Scott’s political strength.

“Republican leadership ought to be supportive of our senators up for re-election,” said Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin.

Despite the internal tension and his new prominence as a Democratic talking point, Mr. Scott said he did not to plan to change course and didn’t seem too worried about Mr. McConnell’s assessment of his political prospects.

“I am never going to be part of the establishment,” he said. “I am going to keep doing what I’ve been doing.”

“I am going to run my race,” he added. “I’ve won three hard races. I will win again.”

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