WASHINGTON — After a year of criticism, Senator Rick Scott, Republican of Florida, capitulated on Friday and amended his party policy agenda to exempt Social Security and Medicare from his proposal to terminate all federal programs every five years and subject them to congressional review.
Mr. Scott said the agenda he issued last February, as the chairman of the Senate Republican campaign arm, was never intended to propose any cuts in the popular retirement programs, although he did not include any carveout for either in his plan. As recently as this week, he defended the idea that all federal spending must be reconsidered in order to tackle the debt.
The senator’s retreat was the latest evidence that Republicans, who have long called for revisions to Medicare and Social Security to help rein in the nation’s soaring debt, have fully backed off from such proposals — at least for now — taking them off the table in spending talks this year with the White House and congressional Democrats. The shift in the longtime position has been accelerated by warnings from Donald J. Trump, the former president and current presidential candidate, that Republicans should not touch either of them.
Mr. Scott has argued that his ideas were purposefully mischaracterized by President Biden as well as Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, as cutting Social Security and Medicare, when his goal was to protect them.
Still, in a tacit concession that he had erred, Mr. Scott wrote in an opinion essay in The Washington Examiner on Friday that he was amending the proposal he made as the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee to exclude “Social Security, Medicare, national security, veterans’ benefits and other essential services” from the requirement for a five-year review.
“That plank of my Rescue America plan was obviously not intended to include entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security — programs that hard-working people have paid into their entire lives — or the funds dedicated to our national security,” Mr. Scott wrote.
Mr. Biden angered Republicans at his State of the Union address last week, when he cited Mr. Scott’s plan as evidence that the G.O.P. would take aim at Social Security in its push to cut spending in exchange for agreeing to raise the federal debt limit this year. They said it was the idea of a single lawmaker, and Mr. Scott objected, saying he had never intended for Social Security to “sunset.”
Mr. McConnell disavowed the proposal from the start, saying it was only Mr. Scott’s idea and did not represent the view of Senate Republicans. Mr. McConnell reiterated that view again this week when he was asked about his feud with Mr. Scott over the proposal.
“As you recall, there was some confusion last year about what the agenda of the Republican Senate might be if we were in the majority,” Mr. McConnell told reporters. “And I made it quite clear that as the likely majority leader, I had hoped at that time, Social Security and Medicare were not on our agenda, period.”
But Mr. Scott’s internally elected position as the chairman of the campaign committee gave the proposal heft since his role was to advise and bolster Republican Senate candidates. Mr. McConnell and others have said the proposal gave Democrats political ammunition that cost Republicans potential Senate seats in Nevada and Pennsylvania, among other places.
Though Mr. Scott insisted he was never interested in cutting the programs, he said as recently as this week that it would be irresponsible not to look at all federal spending given the nation’s mounting debt. He reiterated that point in the opinion essay.
“I proposed that we sunset federal programs every five years so that Congress is forced to review ridiculous spending programs, analyze whether they’re working or not and reauthorize the ones that are,” Mr. Scott wrote. “It’s common sense to every single person in the country except the politicians, bureaucrats and lobbyists who get rich off the government gravy train that’s led to $32 trillion in debt.”
He accused Mr. Biden and Mr. McConnell of playing “shallow gotcha politics” in attacking his proposal.
“I have never supported cutting Social Security or Medicare, ever,” Mr. Scott wrote. “To say otherwise is a disingenuous Democrat lie from a very confused president. And Senator Mitch McConnell is also well aware of that.”
Allies of Mr. McConnell pointed to Mr. Scott’s backtracking on his plan this week as evidence that he had realized it was a mistake.
Mr. Scott, a former Florida governor, was considered a potential Republican presidential candidate but is seeking a second Senate term next year. He ran for Republican leader after the midterm election but was easily defeated by Mr. McConnell.