House Democratic leaders are hammering Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanTrump hosts Hill leaders for ice breaker Obama's last law: TALENT Act will enhance government efficiency The new Congress's opportunity to turn the tide on abortions MORE's newly created anti-poverty task force, calling it a fig leaf designed to mask the GOP's attacks on the poor.
The Democrats, who have long criticized the Wisconsin Republican's budgets for their cuts to low-income and entitlement programs, point out that the new panel consists only of Republicans who have championed those same government-slashing proposals.
"Speaker Ryan's new poverty task force is a sham. It is made up of only Republicans with voting records that cut funding to the very social safety net programs that combat poverty," Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), a top Democratic appropriator, said Wednesday during a blustery press conference outside the Capitol.
"All of the members of the task force voted for cuts included in the Ryan budget: cuts to food stamps, Pell Grants, housing assistance, childcare, Head Start and Medicaid," she added.
"They failed to realize that their solutions to address poverty would ultimately increase poverty."
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer delivered a similar warning. The Maryland Democrat praised Ryan for casting a light on poverty. But he said the GOP's track record on the issue doesn't leave him much hope that the task force will prove effective.
"House Republicans have been pursuing policies ... year after year after year, that directly target the most vulnerable Americans. They voted repeatedly for budgets written by Speaker Ryan, when he was Budget chairman, that slashed investments in programs serving the hungry, the homeless [and] the sick," Hoyer said.
"Speaker Ryan has spoken at much greater length than many Republicans about the importance of combating poverty. I appreciate his words," he added. "Those in poverty would appreciate his actions."
The debate is intensifying amid an election in which stagnant income has been a prominent issue. Ryan and GOP leaders are trying to focus more attention on poverty alleviation.
The Republicans have struggled to attract support from minorities, and national leaders want to improve the party's image in the face of longtime criticisms that its policies favor the rich at the expense of the poor and working class.
Announced last week, Ryan's new panel — dubbed the Task Force on Poverty, Opportunity, and Upward Mobility — is designed to fortify the nation's safety net, bolster education and work training programs, help welfare recipients find work, "and empower everyone to live their own American Dream," according to a statement from Ryan's office.
Members of the task force include Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.); Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin BradyKevin BradyOvernight Finance: Trump takes US out of Pacific trade deal | WH says Trump has left his businesses | Lobbyists expect boom times Trump right to question GOP tax plan Week ahead: Trump gets to work with ObamaCare, regs in his crosshairs MORE (R-Texas); Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas); Education Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.); and Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas).
The poverty debate also highlights the differences between the parties when it comes to the role and scope of government in tackling the economic problems still lingering from the recession.
Republicans support a model of non-intervention that includes cutting taxes, slashing federal spending and scaling back regulations, all policies they say will unleash the hiring potential of the business community and private markets.
Democrats, in contrast, believe in a stimulus model that includes a increase in infrastructure spending, an extension of unemployment benefits and a higher minimum wage, all policies designed to put more money into the pockets of low- and middle-class consumers for the sake of the broader economy.
Democrats are already warning that any GOP effort to slash low-income programs will be dead on arrival.
"If Republicans want to join Democrats in a meaningful bipartisan conversation on poverty, we welcome them," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Wednesday. "But Republicans' tired, trickle-down agenda is no solution for struggling Americans."
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) was even more direct.
"If you insist on doubling down on cruel and dangerous policies that will only make it harder for families to escape poverty, we will fight you," he said.
The threat carries weight because Republican leaders, already struggling to pass a budget in the face of deep internal divisions, have been unable to pass big spending bills in recent years without Democrats' support.
GOP leaders, hoping to avoid any threat of a government shutdown just before the elections, will likely be forced to reach across the aisle for Pelosi's help again this year.
One potential area of agreement in the poverty debate involves targeted funding. Democrats, particularly members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), have been pushing a strategy that would direct more federal money to areas of persistent poverty nationwide.
Championed by Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the plan would channel at least 10 percent of federal spending on discretionary programs to communities where at least 20 percent of the population has lived below the poverty line for at least the last 30 years.
Ryan told the CBC last month that he's open to the idea, and Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) says he's also interested.
It's unclear whether Republicans will adopt any form of that strategy in the appropriations process, but Rogers and Clyburn have been in recent discussions about the possibility.