National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden touched a nerve Wednesday when he savaged the entitlement changes in President Barack Obama’s budget as a “shocking attack on seniors.”
But while conservative groups expressed outrage and top House leaders, including Speaker John A. Boehner, said they disagreed with Walden, it’s the lack of fallout for the Oregon Republican that may be more revealing.
The debate Walden’s remarks has set off inside the GOP shows many Republicans harbor deep-seated fears about publicly supporting the entitlement cuts they supposedly back and have demanded Obama and other Democrats embrace since taking control of the House in 2011.
“Walden is doing the right thing for the 30 seats that control the majority of the House, and that’s what the mission of NRCC chair is,” said Brock McLeary, the president of Harper Polling and a former top political hand at the NRCC.
“Right now, I’m not a fan, personally, of that,” sophomore class representative Rep. Steve Southerland II, R-Fla., said of “chained CPI.” “When you look at entitlement reform, it’s gotta be comprehensive.”
Many GOP operatives fear Obama’s embrace of chained consumer price index, a mechanism to slow the growth of Social Security benefits over time, is a trap — a means of getting Republicans to support the policy on the record only to see Democrats savage them for it down the line.
Still, that doesn’t change the breathtaking cynicism of Walden’s move.
On Wednesday, Boehner reiterated the GOP’s call for entitlement changes that would help balance the budget in 10 years, a stand that would require far bolder steps than the relatively modest policies in Obama’s budget. The Ohio Republican also praised Obama for including changes in his budget.
Hours later, Walden told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that Obama was “trying to balance this budget on the backs of seniors.”
On Thursday, Boehner said, “I’ve made it clear that I disagree with what Chairman Walden said. He and I have had a conversation about it. This is the least we must do to begin to solve the problems of Social Security.”
Rory Cooper, a spokesman for Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said his boss “thinks that chained CPI should definitely be on the table” and noted that, like Boehner, Cantor had also spoken to Walden.
What, exactly, Boehner and Cantor told Walden remains a mystery, and whatever it was, it doesn’t seemed to have prompted a change of heart from Walden.
“We had a good, positive discussion. Look, I support comprehensive entitlement reform. That’s why I supported the Ryan budget. And we need to look at a comprehensive reform of entitlements,” Walden told CQ Roll Call.
Boehner declined to publicly urge Walden not to use chained CPI to attack Democrats, noting again that he had talked to Walden and “we’ll leave it at that.” Asked later in a Capitol hallway what he said to Walden, the speaker just laughed.
Andrea Bozek, a spokeswoman for the NRCC, pointedly declined to say Walden would not attack Democrats for support of the policy in the future, saying the campaign committee doesn’t “telegraph” its strategy to its political opponents.
“Walden is going to continue to disagree with the president’s political plan that hurts current seniors just so he can pay for more wasteful spending,” she added.
Conservatives, including many pundits, expressed outrage.
The Club for Growth put Walden on its PrimaryMyCongressman.com website.
Former Republican congressman-turned-TV-show-host Joe Scarborough said on MSNBC that Walden’s stand “makes me so angry, I don’t know what to do with my myself. Oh my God, this is unbelievable” and called on GOP leadership to repudiate the comments.
Some Republican lawmakers expressed puzzlement. “It was kind of out of tune with what a lot of us have been saying. At the same time, he may have misspoken, I don’t want to, you know, put words in his mouth or anything like that or even speculate what he was thinking at the time. From my point of view, chained CPI is something we are seriously considering at the Ways and Means Committee, and we’re pleased that the president is also considering this as a potential reform,” said Rep. Charles Boustany Jr., R-La.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel of New York slammed Walden’s remarks as the “height of cynicism” and said they reflect the GOP’s unreasonableness.
“The thinking is anything that the president’s for, we will be against. It is this inflexive intransigence — that if the president said, ‘It’s 90 degrees outside,’ Greg Walden would say, ‘It’s a blizzard.’”
However, the issue has tied Democrats in knots, too, with liberals expressing anger at Obama’s embrace of the policy and vowing to oppose any entitlement cuts at all.
Israel said that he has concerns with chained CPI but is open to it.
“If it will advance a compromise that is big and balanced and fair, and if we could work out some of the kinks, I would consider it. Unlike Greg Walden, I do not slam the door on compromise, I’m willing to consider it, even when I do have some concerns,” he said.