Ryan, CBC ‘agree to disagree’ on poverty

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Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and black Democrats emerged Wednesday from a much-anticipated meeting on reducing poverty with a similar frustrated message: We still don't agree on solutions.

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The closed-door gathering was designed to locate common ground between members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), who want to tackle poverty largely by boosting federal spending on programs for the poor, and Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman whose recent budget bill would slash hundreds of billions of dollars from those same initiatives.

But if there was any consensus coming out of the meeting, it was that neither side appeared ready to budge.

"[We] didn't get a whole lot accomplished," Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), head of the CBC, said afterward, with Ryan at her side. "We do agree on a number of things. One is that we're both concerned about the poverty in this country. We just disagree about how we address the problem."

Ryan largely echoed that message. The Wisconsin Republican said he's "excited" the bipartisan talks are happening, but acknowledged that the partisan spending disagreements at the heart of Congress's anti-poverty debate haven’t changed.

"We will disagree on macro-economics and budgets and things like that," Ryan said. "But hopefully out of a good dialogue we can find some common ground and make a difference."

Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), a CBC member, described the meeting as "cordial" but said there weren’t any breakthroughs.

"We agreed to disagree on many philosophical issues," Butterfield said. "We're not going to change his ideology and he's certainly not going to change ours."

The private meeting was scheduled after Ryan last month told a conservative radio host that poverty is caused largely by a "tailspin of culture," particularly in inner cities, where "generations of men [are] not even thinking about working or learning to value the culture of work."

Many Democrats, notably members of the CBC, blasted the comments as a criticism of black culture. Faced with the outcry, Ryan clarified that his remarks were "inarticulate" — an explanation he repeated to the Democrats on Wednesday, according to Fudge.

“He said that sometimes people say things and they think they are saying it in a certain way and people are hearing it differently,” Fudge said.

Addressing the controversial comments, both sides agreed Wednesday that poverty is not limited to any one race, region or political persuasion.

"We have agreed today that it is across the board. There is no particular place or people who experience poverty at a different rate than others," Fudge said.

"On that we agree," Ryan echoed.

Still, several CBC members said there remain many in the group who consider Ryan's initial remarks an accurate reflection of where the Budget chairman stands on the poverty issue.

“There are people [in the CBC] who feel that he was not being inarticulate, that he was saying how he feels deeply about things,” Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) said.

Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat and a member of the CBC, suggested Ryan's comments were not the focus of Wednesday's meeting. 

Ryan didn't apologize, Clyburn said, "and nobody asked him to, either."

Outside of Ryan's comments, there remains broad disagreement over the GOP's latest budget proposal and its effects on the country's poorest people.

Ryan's 2015 budget blueprint is designed to eliminate deficit spending over a decade through a series of tax reforms and $5.1 trillion in spending cuts, which include sharp reductions in many programs aimed at helping the poor, including Medicaid, food stamps and Pell grants.

An analysis by the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that Ryan's budget gets 69 percent of its savings from programs that serve low- and moderate-income people. 

The bill passed through the House earlier this month without any Democratic votes.

Supporters, including most Republicans, say the plan marks a responsible path toward getting the country in fiscal order after years of record-high deficits exacerbated by the Great Recession. Critics argue that Ryan's deficit-reduction strategy disproportionately targets vulnerable populations — seniors included — while preserving generous tax benefits for corporations and other well-heeled interests.

On a personal level, Ryan and the CBC members appear to get along well. Indeed, walking away from the microphones after Wednesday's brief press conference, the Budget chairman gently put an arm around Fudge.

But on policy issues, the sides remain far apart. Many of the Democrats leaving Wednesday's meeting said that, as long as Ryan continues to support the domestic cuts in his budget, they find it difficult to take his anti-poverty vows seriously.

"If he stands by his resolution, then he cannot be serious about the discussion we had today," Clyburn said.

Moore piled on.

“I regard Paul as a friend of mine — he is very friendly and very nice — but that budget of his is a statement," she said. "It is a lot more harmful than something Cliven Bundy might say."

One rare spot where compromise appeared possible was on a CBC proposal, dubbed the 10-20-30 plan, that would direct at least 10 percent of federal anti-poverty spending to communities where at least 20 percent of the population have lived below the poverty line for at least the last 30 years.

Ryan said Wednesday that he's interested in learning more about the proposal, and plans are in the works to have CBC leaders present the proposal to the Budget chairman in a future meeting.

"We're going to sit down and talk more about [it]," Ryan said. "I just don't know all the details and particulars of [it]." 

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