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Sen. Rick Scott wants every American to pay at least some income taxes

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Senator Rick Scott of Florida is defending proposals he wants to campaign on this fall. Scott leads the Republican effort to capture the Senate. He put out a document with numerous ideas, including two that captured a lot of attention. Scott said every American should pay at least some income taxes - have skin in the game, as he put it. About half of Americans currently do not earn enough to pay income taxes. Senator Scott added that all federal laws should expire after five years unless Congress renews them. But on March 1, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell rejected both ideas.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: 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.

INSKEEP: Senator Scott persisted, defending his ideas in an article in The Wall Street Journal. So we called him up to ask what he means.

RICK SCOTT: I'm not going to raise anybody's taxes, but I want to have a conversation. We've got able-bodied Americans who are living off of government programs instead of working, and that's caused by these Democrat policies. And that doesn't work. We got billionaires that are not paying, you know, income taxes. So we - can't be the only taxpayers are what our retirees put in and what our hardworking Americans are putting in, and they're paying all the taxes.

INSKEEP: It seems to me you're expressing a traditional Republican concern then, the idea that some people are paying all the taxes and other people are freeloading.

SCOTT: Well, I'm - so what - the way I think about it is we've set up - if you look at what we've been doing the last few years is we're paying people not to work. I mean, this is - you would never create - it doesn't make any sense.

INSKEEP: But I'm thinking - you said you don't want to raise anybody's taxes. However, if you're saying everyone is going to pay income taxes, you are going to do that. I'm thinking of a working mom who has a job, pays the Social Security payroll tax, pays the Medicare tax, pays sales taxes when they buy things, also may even have income tax withholding, but maybe she gets it back with the Earned Income Tax Credit at the end of the year. She's just getting by. You're saying that person is not paying enough and needs to pay something. That's raising your taxes, isn't it?

SCOTT: I'm not going to raise taxes. What I'm saying is we have people that have voted for government programs that could work and don't want to work, and that's what my focus is. We have billionaires that have figured out how to hire the right lawyers to not be part of this. So I want to make sure this is fair to all Americans, and that's what - that's - it's real simple. We can't...

INSKEEP: If you're not going to - just so I understand, if you're not going to raise anybody's taxes, that means you're not calling for everybody to pay at least some income taxes?

SCOTT: I'm - I want to create a system where we're all in this together. But I'm not raising taxes. I don't believe in tax increases.

INSKEEP: I just don't understand how that matches with telling everyone to pay some income tax when some people don't.

SCOTT: It's real simple. We've got people that have voted for government programs that could go work and aren't working. I'm not raising the tax rate. I'm not even raising their taxes. I'm saying we got to get these people to work so they're part of the system.

INSKEEP: Now, when he talks about people who voted for government programs, Senator Scott is touching on some politically sensitive ground. His proposal echoes something that then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney said as he ran against Barack Obama back in 2012.

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MITT ROMNEY: There are 47% of the people who will vote for the president no matter what, all right? There are 47% who are with him, who are dependent upon the government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing.

INSKEEP: Romney was fiercely criticized for those private remarks. Ten years later, Senator Rick Scott is not backing down. His Wall Street Journal article was headlined "Why I'm Defying Beltway Cowardice."

You also proposed that all laws would automatically sunset after five years, which is a popular Republican idea. I've heard that before over the years. But why would you do that?

SCOTT: Well, I think what we've got to do is we've got to really review our existing laws. We've got to make sure that, you know, laws that were passed before - that we still need them. I mean, the world changes. Congress needs to start being honest with the American public and tell them exactly what we're going to do to make sure they continue to get their Medicare and their Social Security.

INSKEEP: I understand the concern about fixing the finances of Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid, but it seems to me that you're saying that there would be no Social Security in five years unless Congress got together and passed the whole program again. Isn't that correct?

SCOTT: Well, no. I believe that people relying on Medicare - we have to have Medicare. But I also believe that we ought to start telling people how we're going to fix it, because we know that it's not being fully funded. The same thing with Social Security.

INSKEEP: You're saying that sunsetting Social Security after five years would force Congress to address the program and come up with something a little different?

SCOTT: So I have zero interest in sunsetting Medicare. I can't imagine anybody up here would want to sunset Medicare. What I want to do is make sure we continue to fund Medicare so people that are relying on Medicare, like my parents did, they continue to get Medicare.

INSKEEP: Scott insists that if forced to pass Social Security and Medicare all over again every five years, Congress would, which brings us back to Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, who told reporters that if he's in charge, Republicans will not be doing as Scott proposed.

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MCCONNELL: That will not be part of the Republican Senate majority agenda.

INSKEEP: McConnell is rejecting ideas that Republicans have commonly repeated for years, repeated so often that, for some, they're like articles of faith, ideas Mitt Romney referenced a decade ago and that I heard growing up in Indiana. The reluctance to embrace Rick Scott's version of those ideas in a campaign says something about American politics.

One last thing. I think if we listened to talk radio, we'd get the idea that people benefiting from government programs are voting for Democrats who favor government programs, and people paying taxes are Republicans. But as I think you probably know, Senator, that's not actually the demographics of the parties at this time. And if we traveled to a lot of states, if we traveled to a lot of parts of Florida, I think we would find that a lot of Republican voters are on Social Security, are on Medicare, are on Medicaid, are benefiting from disability payments and a variety of other government payments. Are you in some way targeting your own party's voters here?

SCOTT: Well, first off, that's never been what I've ever said. I grew up in public housing - born to a single mom. I have relatives dependent on Medicare. I have relatives dependent on Medicare disability. What my focus is is to make sure that the government continues those programs. And when we sit here and we run up $30 trillion worth of debt, we have zero conversation about how we're going to make sure Medicare's continued to be funded, I don't think we're being honest with the American public. And I think I want to be in a situation where - let's have the conversation. How do we fix these programs so they're long-lasting?

INSKEEP: Senator Rick Scott of Florida, who says that with his campaign document, he wanted to start a conversation, which he certainly did. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.