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As deficit grows, GOP leaders eye cuts to Medicare, Social Security

Dems argued vociferously that the Republican tax plan would lead to GOP calls for cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Republicans are now proving Dems right.
Two men stand on the plaza of the U.S. Capitol Building as storm clouds fill the sky, June 13, 2013 in Washington, DC.
Two men stand on the plaza of the U.S. Capitol Building as storm clouds fill the sky, June 13, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), who currently chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, sat down with CNBC's John Harwood, who asked the Ohio Republican about the fact that the deficit is soaring in the wake of his party's tax breaks.

Predictably, the congressman responded to the issue the way GOP lawmakers nearly always respond to the issue.

Harwood: No misgivings about a tax cut that was not paid for, that's allowing debt and deficits to rise like it is now?Stivers: I do think we need to deal with our some of our spending. We've got to try to figure out how to spend less.

Note the pivot: massive tax breaks for the wealthy and big corporations has turned a modest budget shortfall into an enormous budget shortfall. Stivers sees that as a problem in need of attention, not by reversing course on regressive tax policies, but by looking at spending.

And that, naturally, led to a conversation between Stivers and Harwood on social-insurance programs like Social Security and Medicare -- what are frequently referred to as "entitlements" -- which Republicans want to cut in order to clean up the budget mess they created with tax cuts.

If this sounds familiar, there's a good reason for that. It was just a few months ago that House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said the "name of the game on debt and deficits" is cutting "entitlements."

At face value, it's difficult to take the rhetoric seriously. If Republican policymakers were genuinely concerned about the budget deficit, they wouldn't have passed unnecessary tax breaks for people who don't need them, without even trying to find a way to pay for the cuts. No one should accept the premise that GOP leaders are sincere about fiscal responsibility.

But even more important is the bigger picture: GOP officials like Stivers and Ryan are helping prove Democrats right about one of the most serious threats posed by the Republican tax plan.

As we discussed in March, the debate over the GOP plan may have been fairly brief -- Republicans pushed their scheme through quickly to get ahead of public opposition -- it featured plenty of Democrats arguing vociferously that its proponents would pass tax cuts for the wealthy, blow up the deficit, and then target Social Security and Medicare, crying about the importance for "fiscal responsibility."

Ryan wasted no time confirming Democrats' fears. The Speaker started talking up Medicare cuts in December, and Social Security cuts soon after. Now the chair of the NRCC is signaling similar intentions.

It's quite a message Republicans are taking into the midterm elections, isn't it? Donald Trump's party pushed through unpopular tax breaks, which led to unpopular deficits, which GOP leaders hope to address though unpopular cuts to celebrated pillars of modern American society such as Social Security and Medicare.

Good luck with that.