House GOP campaign chairman under fire from his own party

The House Republican campaign chief came under fire from senior members of his own party on Thursday after he split with party leaders in criticizing a Social Security change in President Obama’s budget that Republicans have long sought.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, on Wednesday called a proposed cut to Social Security a “shocking assault on seniors,” hours after Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) had praised the president for offering the same policy change, known as chained CPI.

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Boehner said he spoke to Walden about his comments, which were made in a CNN interview, and the Speaker reiterated his support for an idea he had included in multiple fiscal offers to Obama.

“I’ve made it clear that I disagree with what Chairman Walden said. He and I have had a conversation about it,” Boehner told reporters at a Capitol press conference. “This is the least we must do to begin to solve the problems with Social Security.”

Chained CPI refers to a different way of calculating inflation for the purposes of determining entitlement benefits and tax obligations. Until recently, the loudest opposition to the change has come from liberals, who say it will cut Social Security benefits and reduce the deficit on the backs of those who can least afford it.

Boehner would not describe his talk with Walden, nor would he say whether he would oppose the NRCC running political attacks on Democrats who supported the policy. But he and other GOP leaders took the opposite line on Obama’s budget, calling the proposed entitlement change too “modest.”

Walden dodged reporters on Thursday as he entered the House chamber to vote, but an aide couched his position in political terms.

“His job is to hold the House,” the aide said, pointing to polling that shows any reduction in Social Security benefits is unpopular.

The aide could not say if Walden would vote against any agreement that included chained CPI or whether he had made his views known to Boehner when the proposal was under discussion in budget negotiations during the last two years.

A Republican leadership aide said Walden’s comments were not planned, and they appeared to represent an early messaging stumble for a man who took over the GOP campaign committee late last year. He served on the House Republican leadership team in the last Congress.

The conservative Club for Growth sharply criticized Walden and immediately added him to a list of Republicans it will work to oppose in primary elections.

“We always knew Greg Walden had a liberal record, but he really cemented it with his public opposition to even modest entitlement reform,” Club for Growth President Chris Chocola said in a statement Thursday.

The NRCC stood by Walden.

“Chairman Walden supports the budget passed by House Republicans that preserves and protects Medicare and Social Security while also balancing the budget in 10 years,” spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said. “He disagrees with President Obama’s political plan that hurts current seniors just so he can pay for more wasteful spending.”

The split provided another reminder of the political difficulty in achieving a deficit-reduction package that includes changes to entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Democrats complained loudly in 2012 when Republicans attacked them for Medicare cuts in the 2010 healthcare overhaul that the GOP had retained in its budget proposals.

The centrist, business-backed Campaign to Fix the Debt called Walden’s criticism “troubling, cynical and harmful to the process of reaching bipartisan consensus.”

Walden’s comments could harden Democratic opposition to chained CPI, because lawmakers will be wary of being targeted for supporting a measure they already dislike as a matter of policy. House Democrats were scheduled to discuss the proposal in a meeting Thursday afternoon.

Obama has already emphasized that he would only accept the policy change as part of a broader deficit deal that included Republican acceptance of higher tax revenue.

“This is a Republican proposal,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Thursday. “And cynical attempts to make it otherwise by some represent, I think, dissonance within the Republican Party, and we've seen plenty of condemnation from conservatives and Republicans of that sort of flagrantly ridiculous and cynical attempt to disown a proposal that emanated from Republican leaders.”

Walden’s counterpart at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), said it was part of the “reflexive intransigence” on part of Republicans.

“If the president said it was 90 degrees outside, Greg Walden would say it was a blizzard,” Israel said.

Other Republicans distanced themselves from Walden on Thursday, including Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

“I think that the president made a step forward on entitlement reform in his budget with chained CPI,” Camp, whose panel oversees Social Security and Medicare, said at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.

Rep. Charles Boustany (La.), a senior member of the Ways and Means panel, said that Walden's comments were "kind of out of tune with what a lot of us have been saying."

Boustany said he was pleased to see the president put chained CPI in his budget, and that other Republicans on the Ways and Means Committee wanted to seriously consider the idea.

“A lot of these issues can be demagogued from the left and the right, depending on how you word it,” Boustany said. “What we're trying to do is focus on some serious policy changes to put these programs on a solid basis. I for one would like to keep away from demagoguing this, especially if we have an opening to get some bipartisan reforms.”

The Walden comments could pose problems for the 104 members of the conference who voted for the Republican Study Committee (RSC) alternative budget last year. The conservative budget was offered as an amendment to Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) budget, which did not contain chained CPI, though Ryan supports the idea.

House Budget Committee Vice Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.) said he supports chained CPI.

“I supported it. It was in the RSC budget,” he said. “I think that as a matter of overall reform it's one of the overall things that has to be done.”

He declined to comment on Walden's remarks, saying he had not seen the video.

— Bernie Becker, Justin Sink, Emily Goodin and Erik Wasson contributed.