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'Hell No,' Say Progressives, After GOP Sen. Joni Ernst Suggests Cutting Social Security 'Behind Closed Doors'

"No matter how hard you try to hide, the American people will be watching—and we won't let you cut our earned Social Security benefits."

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) speaks to members of the media as Republican Sens. John Barrasso (Wyo.), John Thune (S.D.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) listen after a weekly Senate Republican Policy Luncheon at the U.S. Capitol on February 5, 2019 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa is under fire after telling a town hall audience last weekend that members of Congress should negotiate changes to Social Security "behind closed doors" in order to dodge scrutiny from the media and advocacy groups.

Ernst, who is running for reelection in 2020, complained to the crowd gathered in Estherville, Iowa that "the minute you say we need to address Social Security, the media is hammering you, the opposing party is hammering you—there goes granny over a cliff."

"The GOP wants to cut our earned Social Security benefits—and they want to do it behind closed doors so that they don't have to pay the political price."
—Nancy Altman, Social Security Works

Lawmakers should therefore meet in secret to avoid "being scrutinized by this group or the other," said the Iowa Republican.

Ernst did not recommend specific changes to Social Security during her town hall appearance, but the senator has in the past suggested privatization of the widely popular program as "one solution."

A video of Ernst's remarks was posted on Youtube Tuesday by the Democratic super PAC American Bridge, and the comments quickly generated outrage on social media.

Nancy Altman, president of progressive advocacy group Social Security Works, wrote Friday that Ernst "said out loud what Republican politicians usually only talk about in secret meetings with their billionaire donors: the GOP wants to cut our earned Social Security benefits—and they want to do it behind closed doors so that they don't have to pay the political price."

Altman said any changes Congress makes to Social Security should expand the program's benefits, and the improvements should be made in public.

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"All of us who have a stake in Social Security—which is every one of us—should insist that those seeking our vote tell us if they support expanding or cutting Social Security," wrote Altman. "If they refuse to tell us, if they ramble on about their desire to 'save' or 'fix' or 'strengthen' Social Security in secret, we should draw the obvious inference: They want to cut Social Security."

Ernst's comments came as President Donald Trump is reportedly considering cuts to Social Security and Medicare as a possible "second-term project."

As the Washington Post reported in July, Trump ordered his aides to "prepare for sweeping budget cuts if he wins a second term in the White House."

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate who in February introduced legislation to expand Social Security by hiking taxes on the rich, said Friday that he has "some bad news" for Republicans who want to gut Social Security in secret.

"We're not going to cut Social Security benefits," Sanders tweeted. "We're going to expand them."

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