(Bloomberg) -- Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump pledged to expand oil and gas drilling in remote areas of Alaska as a way to pay for Social Security benefits, a trade-off that is unlikely to pass muster with Congressional budget scorekeepers.
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Trump, in a televised interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity Tuesday night, said that he would reverse a decision by President Joe Biden to cancel oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He said that would negate proposals by his Republican rivals — including former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley — to raise the Social Security eligibility age in order to keep the benefits programs solvent.
“We have such incredible wealth under our feet. That that takes care of everything,” Trump said during the Fox town hall in Davenport, Iowa.
By linking fossil fuel production with Social Security benefits, Trump is highlighting two key issues of importance to Republican primary voters just weeks before they begin to start casting ballots for the party’s nominee. But the revenue from drilling is a small fraction of the total cost of Social Security payments.
The Congressional Budget Office has projected that expanding drilling leases would bring in about $1.8 billion over a decade. That’s in contrast with the $1.4 trillion in Social Security benefits is estimated pay out this year alone.
Social Security benefits are a major source of income for US taxpayers over the age of 65. The Social Security trust fund is projected to be insolvent by 2033 without further action, which would mean that payments to recipients would be reduced to about 75% of current levels.
The potential cuts in Social Security payments in the next decade has prompted discussions about changing the program. That’s a key fault line between Trump, who has pledged not to alter Social Security, and his Republican rivals who have suggested curbing some benefits.
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Haley has proposed increasing the retirement age for future generations. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has said he would consider changes to Social Security only for younger adults.
“We have more wealth than anybody, but we don’t use it,” Trump said. “But guys like DeSantis and to a lesser extent, Nikki Haley, they want to play around with your Social Security. You don’t have to touch Social Security.”
The divisions over Social Security is one of many issues that could come up at the fourth Republican primary debate in Alabama on Wednesday, though Trump won’t be on the stage. He also skipped the previous three debates.
The former president has coasted through much of campaign so far, participating in fewer, but larger, events over the past few months. He leads the field nationally by 47.8 percentage points according to a RealClear Politics average of polls. DeSantis and Haley trail Trump with polling averages in the teens.
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The pre-taped event on Tuesday was the second town hall the former president has done with Hannity in Iowa, where the Republican nominating process will begin next month. The decision to avoid debates and opt for solo campaigns event is indicative of his campaign’s strategy that has sought deprive his rivals of the limelight.
As the other candidates take the stage once more on Wednesday, Trump will participate in an fundraiser at Hallandale Beach, Florida, Wednesday evening as the debate takes place.
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