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Obama Made One Big Budget Concession to Republicans—And They're Attacking Him for It

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Want to know whether bipartisan compromise on the budget has a future? Then watch very clearly over the next few days, to see whether Republican leaders distance themselves from Republican Congressman Greg Walden—and whether Walden himself walks back some rhetoric from yesterday.

Walden, from Oregon, is chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. And after President Obama released his budget Wednesday, he was quick to attack it. By itself, that was unexceptional: Pretty much every Republican leader spent the day criticizing it. But most Republicans stuck to the familiar arguments conservatives make against Democratic budgets—that it calls for too much spending and too many taxes. Walden went after something else: Obama’s proposal to reduce Social Security benefits.

By now, you’re probably familiar with the proposal, which would change the inflation formula that government uses to calculate a variety of benefit and tax levels. Wonks call it “Chained CPI,” with CPI standing for “consumer price index.” Many experts believe the Chained CPI would better reflect true inflation, because consumers, when faced with higher prices, substitute cheaper goods. But it’s still a benefit cut and many experts also believe that some consumers, the elderly among them, are less able to adapt.1 Obama has said he would support the measure only in exchange for concessions, such as higher taxes on the wealthy and spending on infrastructure. Even so, he’s taken all kinds of grief over the idea from the left, where the idea remains highly unpopular, even in the abstract.

For that reason alone, endorsing the CPI change represents a major concession, albeit one Obama had made previously in private and then in public. And it’s a concession that, on multiple occasions, Republicans have insisted Obama make formally, in the budget, as a show of good faith. Now he has done that. Yet the ink was barely dry on the budget before Walden went after it, not because it was insufficient but because it would hurt the elderly. “A shocking attack on seniors,” he called it.

The fact that Walden is in charge of the committee that will coordinate congressional campaigns for Republicans in 2014 is significant here, because it foreshadows a campaign in which Obama, having accepted an entitlement cut that conservatives demand, gets attacked for it. We’ve seen this play out before—in 2010 and 2012, when Obama and Democrats came under merciless attack for cuts to Medicare, as part of the Affordable Care Act, no less harsh than cuts Republicans were simultaneously advocating. Sure enough, Walden linked the two during an interview with CNN. Via Talking Points Memo:

I’ll tell you when you’re going after seniors the way he’s already done on Obamacare, taken $700 billion out of Medicare to put into Obamacare and now coming back at seniors again, I think you’re crossing that line very quickly here in terms of denying access to seniors for health care in districts like mine certainly and around the country. 

So far, other Republican leaders have not echoed Walden’s criticism. They’ve said the concession was inadequate or suggested that, given the bipartisan agreement on chained CPI, it should become law by itself.2 But they haven’t criticized it. And Walden has even taken some criticism from the right. Among those calling on Walden to “rethink” his argument is Jennifer Rubin, the conservative blogger for The Washington Post.

Rubin is right. (How often do I get to say that?) If it was foolish to propose chained CPI in the first place, it would be really foolish to push the idea now, unless and until Republican leaders send a clear signal that they are willing to share ownership of the idea—and will not condone attacks on it. I’m skeptical that they will, though I’m always happy to be proven wrong.

Update: In a pleasant surprise, House Speaker John Boehner on Thursday distanced himself from Walden. Via NBC news, Boehner said "I've made it clear that I disagree with what Chairman Walden said" and that the CPI proposal was "the least we must do to begin to solve the problem of Social Security." 

  1. For a balanced, nuanced assessment of the Chained CPI, you can do no better (as usual) than Robert Greenstein at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. For some actual numbers, see Dylan Matthews in The Washington Post. Not that Obama’s proposal would take several steps to protect low-income seniors—among them, not applying the new CPI to poverty guidelines that determine eligibility for programs like Medicaid and food stamps. But even with those protections, low-income seniors would lose some benefits.

  2. Here, too, Republican opinions have shifted. Greg Sargent has the detailed history.