The most important person in the budget debate? Greg Walden.

April 11, 2013

Not many people outside Washington know who Greg Walden is, and the new National Republican Congressional Committee chairman isn't all that well-known inside the Beltway either.

But for now, he's the most important figure in the looming budget debate.


Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), joins Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio), left, and other GOP leaders in Washington, April 6, after meeting to work out a budget deal and avoid a government shutdown. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

With one fell swoop Wednesday, Walden signaled that he and his party might well try to use the entitlement reforms in President Obama's budget against Democrats, calling Obama's budget a "shocking attack on seniors."

The problem? GOP leaders have actually been pushing for the White House to pursue entitlement reforms and many of them have praised that aspect of Obama's budget — particularly when it comes to the so-called "chained CPI." They may not like Obama's budget, but they have recognized Obama's proposed entitlement reforms as an olive branch and bargaining chip.

Walden's comments, accordingly, left many confused and searching for answers. Democrats on Wednesday accused Walden of hypocrisy, and the fiscally conservative Club for Growth — which, like many other conservative groups, wants entitlement reform — called on him to clarify his remarks.

Thursday morning, MSNBC host and former GOP congressman Joe Scarborough called on Republicans to condemn Walden's remarks, and White House press secretary Jay Carney called Walden's comments a “cynical attempt to disown” a GOP proposal.

House Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) staff has been in touch with Walden's, according to an aide with knowledge of the situation who was granted anonymity to discuss the situation candidly.

How Walden responds to that pressure could effectively seal the fate of entitlement reform or breath some life back into it.

The fact is that, even as Walden remains a relatively unknown member of Congress, his position as head of the National Republican Congressional Committee means he's a good barometer of the party's 2014 electoral strategy. And If Democrats believe the GOP will use entitlement reform against them in the next campaign, they will quite simply walk away from the table.

For now, Walden's not backing down, with NRCC spokeswoman Andrea Bozek saying Walden supports the GOP's proposed entitlement reforms but not Obama's. "He disagrees with President Obama’s political plan that hurts current seniors just so he can pay for more wasteful spending," Bozek said.

You can hardly blame Walden for trying, of course. Entitlement reforms are deeply unpopular with the American people, and attacking them on the campaign trail has proven a fruitful electoral strategy. Walden can read polls, and those polls all tell him to attack Obama's entitlement reforms — just as Democrats, we should note, have long attacked Republicans for attempting to privatize Social Security and proposing to turn Medicare into a voucher program.

But on entitlement reform, Republicans can't have their cake and eat it too. They can't get their policy goals while also using the issue as a political cudgel. That's why you're seeing the resistance to Walden's comments.

Conservative groups and GOP leadership appear more interested, for now, in cutting the budget and reforming entitlements than how the issue will play out in the 2014 election. And the fact is that Walden's words will hamper that effort, no matter how well-intentioned and politically savvy.

Boehner is expected to address the matter at a press conference at 1:15 p.m. Eastern time. But even if this flap is a short-lived one, it's a perfect example of why entitlement reform is so difficult. Basically everyone involved must agree to a political cease-fire, and the moment someone threatens to break that agreement — as Walden did — the whole thing blows up.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix, the Post’s top political blog.
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