Florida Sen. Rick Scott has emerged as Joe Biden’s top Republican foil in the days since the president’s State of the Union address, with the White House seizing on a year-old Scott proposal that even GOP leaders recognized at the time as politically toxic.
As a spending fight looms in Washington and Biden moves towards his 2024 reelection bid, the White House is attempting to make Scott the poster child for the president’s accusations that Republicans are seeking to cut entitlement programs, including Social Security and Medicare.
Scott has responded by accusing Biden of lying, airing a misleading ad that alleges Biden cut Medicare and lambasting the president in a barrage of television interviews.
Biden traveled Thursday to Florida – where Scott was a health care executive and two-term governor – on the latest leg of his post-State of the Union tour.
The trip was designed in part to stoke a fight with Scott after Biden in his speech Tuesday night seized on the first-term senator’s proposal to sunset all federal programs – including Social Security and Medicare – every five years unless Congress extends those programs.
Biden’s assertion that some Republicans are seeking to change entitlement programs was met with jeers from Republican lawmakers, who have said spending cuts should be part of any proposal to raise the debt ceiling.
The president continued pressing that message Wednesday in Wisconsin, telling union workers, “A lot of Republicans, their dream is to cut Social Security and Medicare.” He waved a pamphlet with Scott’s proposal as he spoke.
Ahead of Biden’s speech Thursday in Tampa, White House aides placed copies of Scott’s proposal on every seat.
In an interview with News84Media’s Kaitlan Collins on Thursday, Scott said Biden has misrepresented the proposal he put forward ahead of the 2022 midterm elections while serving as head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm of the Senate GOP.
“Nobody believes that I want to cut Medicare or Social Security. I’ve never said it,” Scott said.
Scott said his proposal is intended to eliminate wasteful spending and help ensure the government can “figure out how to start living within our means.”
“I want to make sure we balance our budget and preserve Medicare and Social Security, and I’ve been clear all along. So what I want to do is get rid of wasteful programs that we never review up here,” he said.
But Scott’s proposal would sunset all federal legislation – including the two entitlement programs – every five years and require Congress to pass them again.
Long before he was a US senator, Scott had first-hand experience dealing with America’s federal health care programs – and it became the source of much criticism as he entered the political arena.
In the 1980s, Scott founded Columbia Hospital Corporation by purchasing a pair of distressed Texas hospitals. He later merged his company with Hospital Corporation of America to create Columbia/HCA, becoming the largest for-profit hospital chain at the time and gaining notoriety on Wall Street for what appeared like cost-cutting in an industry with ballooning expenses.
In 1997, federal agents unveiled a sweeping investigation into Columbia/HCA that would roil the company for years. On the day the FBI swooped in to seize records from 35 of its hospitals across six states, Scott shrugged off the probe. “It’s not a fun day, but … government investigations are a matter of fact today in health care,” he said on News84Media.
The investigation would unearth what the US Department of Justice later called the “largest health care fraud case in US history.” According to a press release, Columbia/HCA schemed to defraud Medicare, Medicaid and TRICARE, the military’s health care program, of hundreds of millions of dollars. The company pleaded guilty to criminal conduct, including charges related to fraudulent Medicare billing and paying kickbacks to doctors, and it ultimately agreed. to pay $1.7 billion in fines, damages and penalties.
Scott was pushed out as CEO amid the turmoil. He was never charged with a crime, although many of the alleged financial abuses took place during his watch. His time in the corporate world made Scott a wealthy individual, which he would lean on in 2010 when he decided to kickstart a political career by entering the race for Florida governor.
Scott’s time at the helm of Columbia/HCA was the subject of negative ads from both Republicans and Democrats, but he fended them off with a self-funded campaign that flooded the airwaves with a jobs-focused message. He told the St. Petersburg Times that “mistakes were made” at his former company and that he had “learned hard lessons,” but he also said during a debate that he was “proud of the company I built.” Regardless of the controversy, the little-known Scott defeated a GOP favorite for his party’s nomination, and Floridians narrowly elected him governor that fall.
During his eight years leading Florida, Scott fought off attempts to extend safety net benefits to Floridians. He frequently challenged the Obama administration over the Affordable Care Act and blocked expansion of Medicaid in Florida. In his first year as governor, he signed a bill to cut unemployment payments and tied benefits to the State’s unemployment rate.
Democrats continued to make Scott’s time at Columbia/HCA an issue, to no avail. Scott eked out a reelection victory in 2014. He then narrowly unseated longtime Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in 2018 after spending more than $70 million of his own money on his campaign.
Marching to the beat of his own drum, Scott declined to be sworn in with his class in January 2019. Instead, he waited until his term as governor had ended and flew to Washington for a separate ceremony. For a time, it made him the country’s most junior senator, but he nevertheless soon found himself in party leadership.
Scott and other Republicans are aggressively pushing back against Biden’s assertions that the GOP is seeking to cut spending on entitlement programs.
However, Republican leaders have long recognized Scott’s proposal to sunset all federal programs after five years as rocky political terrain.
The tense relationship between Scott and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell burst into public view during the 2022 election cycle as Republicans sought to retake the Senate.
Scott, as NRSC chairman, released a platform called “Rescue America,” which would have subjected all federally elected officials to a term limit of 12 years and closed the Department of Education, amid a slew of other initiatives. It would also have required millions of low-income and middle-class Americans to pay income taxes, which was later dropped in a revised version of the plan.
And, in what Democrats immediately recognized as an opening to accuse Republicans of attempting to undercut popular programs, Scott’s plan proposed sunsetting all federal legislation in five years – unless Congress extended it.
McConnell quickly disavowed Scott’s plan, seeking to make clear that the Florida senator did not speak for Senate Republicans.
“Let me tell you what would not be a part of our agenda,” McConnell said at a news conference last March. “We will not have as part of our agenda a bill that raises taxes on half the American people, and sunsets Social Security and Medicare within five years.”
Their frosty relationship did not improve as the 2022 election cycle continued, as the two battled over which candidates to support in primaries and in the general election, and Republicans ultimately fell short of winning a majority.
After the election, Scott challenged McConnell for the top Senate Republican post but lost.
The Florida senator said last week that he saw McConnell’s decision to remove him from the Senate Commerce Committee as retribution.
“He didn’t like that I opposed him because I believe we have to have ideas – fight over ideas,” Scott said on “News84Media This Morning.”
When pressed Thursday by News84Media’s Collins about why his proposal left open the opportunity for the government to cut funding for Social Security and Medicare, Scott repeatedly referenced a policy proposal from then-Sen. Biden in 1975 to sunset federal legislation periodically.
Scott said Biden’s old proposal does less to protect entitlements for seniors than the senator’s plan from last year because “he proposed it year after year after year to reduce Medicare and Social Security. Year after year. I’ve never done that. I don’t believe in that.”
Asked Thursday about the 1975 proposal mentioned by Scott, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said“A bill from the 1970s is not part of the president’s agenda.”
“The president ran on protecting Medicare and Social Security from cuts. And he reiterated that in the State of the Union,” she said.
A new ad from Scott released this week in advance of the president’s visit to Florida says that “Joe Biden just cut $280 billion from Medicare” – a claim that was previously debunked when Scott and the NRSC made it in 2022.
Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act is expected to reduce Medicare prescription drug spending by the federal government by $237 billion, according to the most recent Congressional Budget Office estimate, because the law allows the government to spend less money to buy drugs from pharmaceutical companies and not because it cuts benefits to seniors enrolled in Medicare. The law makes Medicare’s prescription drug program substantially more generous to seniors while also saving them money.
Scott, in his interview with Collins, also defended his recent call for Biden to resign, labeling him “a complete failure.” He said his resignation calls did not specifically stem from Biden’s use of his proposal as an avenue to attack Republicans but expressed his displeasure with the president’s repeated references to his plan.
“He lies about what I want to get done, and I don’t appreciate it,” Scott said.