Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, is an increasingly powerful figure in Washington, D.C. — and he is sticking more closely than ever to his party in the tumultuous first year of the Trump presidency.
Just as Donald Trump rose to the presidency, Walden was taking over the chairmanship of one of the most powerful committees in Congress. The reach of the House Energy & Commerce committee is huge – ranging from health care to the internet to the electrical grid. Colleagues treat Walden with a certain deference and lobbyists flock to his fundraisers.
But Oregon's only Republican congressman is also under a critical spotlight more than ever before. He was besieged at town halls back home by voters upset with his high-profile attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and for his support of the Trump administration.
Life In The Spotlight
"He's getting his ass kicked out there," said Walden's best friend in the House, Texas Republican Rep. Pete Sessions, of the raucous town halls. "He's got the gavel and he's got a lot of things but we are finding that the perception of Republicans is based on the president's viewpoint."
The difficulty of working with Trump became clear earlier this year when Walden shepherded the GOP health care bill through the House in May. Within hours, he was at a victory party in the White House, where he told Trump that it "has been an honor to work with you hand-in-hand to get this bill to this point."
Within weeks, however, Trump said in a private meeting with senators that he found the House bill "mean" as criticism continued to mount that the bill would cause millions to lose health coverage.
"He called it mean and harsh," Walden recalled sardonically in an OPB interview late in the year in his Capitol Hill office. "It was not appreciated … I conveyed my displeasure to the White House."
Still, Walden didn't let the direct jab at his handiwork damage his relationship with Trump. Instead, he swallowed any doubts and joined with other House GOP leaders throughout the year in trying to accommodate the new president.
Walden shook his head at the idea he should publicly take on the president. Oregon may lean Democratic, but not for him.
"Well, it's simple," he said. "The American voters – including 19 or 20 counties in my district – had just elected President Trump."
He added: “My job is to get things done for the second district of Oregon, first, and for the country. And, I’m more valuable in doing that if I have a good strong, thoughtful relationship with the president of the United States.”
Growing Up In Politics
Oregon's Republican congressman has long been known as smart, even-tempered – and cautious. Walden, who turns 61 on Jan. 10, has spent nearly three decades in elected office, first in the Oregon Legislature and then in Congress.
His father, Paul Walden, was also a state legislator and Walden has been around politics since he was a kid. By his late 20s, he had become the chief of staff to an Oregon congressman, Republican Rep. Denny Smith.
"He's a very good politician," said Mark Bailey, who has known Walden since the 1980s. "He's very good at what he does."
Bailey is the program manager at Gorge Radio in Hood River, part of a chain of radio stations that Walden and his wife, Mylene, took over from his father. He said that Walden picked up a do-it-yourself ethic from his father. Even after Walden sold the radio stations and was in Congress, Bailey said he's sometimes seen him mowing the lawn for a rental house he continues to own in Hood River.
Ironically, Walden's home in Hood River is in a county that is turning Democratic. He only won the county by five votes in 2016. But it's a microcosm of how he's long worked across party lines in a state that leans Democratic.
In his OPB interview, Walden stressed how often he had been able to work with Democrats on the energy and commerce committee. He noted that he's moved forward bills to spur the development of autonomous vehicles, modernize the Food and Drug Administration and improve drinking water laws with bipartisan support.
He's also tackled issues of particular interest to his district, including a bill to spur hydropower development and to once again designate a site in Nevada as the primary repository for nuclear waste storage. The latter is a big issue in communities across the Columbia River near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, which has major nuclear waste issues.
New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone, the ranking Democrat on the Energy and Commerce committee, said he has indeed often been able to work with Walden – but that comes with a big caveat.
"Greg is a very easy guy to work with and I think he tries to be bipartisan," Pallone said. "I think the problem is that the president and the White House leadership get in the way and he toes the line."
Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-California, said she's built a strong friendship with Walden. They've worked together for years on a telecommunications subcommittee.
"Being a sensible person, he doesn't like to approach things ideologically, he really doesn't," Eshoo said. But she noted that Republicans keep a close leash on their committee chairs.
They are limited to six-year terms and sticking with the team is paramount.
"You don't become chairman and you don't remain chairman if you're not willing to do that," Eshoo said. She added that Walden responded to her criticism of the Obamacare bill by saying it was a lot better than the original version.
In fact, health care was a sensitive issue for Walden. Oregon aggressively expanded its Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act, and more than a quarter of the people in his district are covered by the federal-state program.
Walden said he fought with hardliners in the Republican caucus.
"We had people who wanted to cut off by the end of the year, the expanded population, period," he said, "and I wasn't going to let that happen."
Walden said he won provisions allowing continued enrollment in expanded Medicaid for another two years. He cut the final deal, he said, in a White House meeting.
"The president said to me, 'Is this going to work?' and I said if you give me enough time, I can make it work," Walden recalled.
The repeal legislation collapsed in the Senate. But Walden continues to disagree with the Congressional Budget Office projection that the number of insured would decline by 23 million by 2026.
More recently, Walden has dismissed official projections showing that the Republican tax bill would increase the federal deficit.
"If you grow the economy by four-tenths of 1 percent more than it otherwise would have grown, you overcome that," he told reporters after the House approved the bill. "And we think this will grow the economy."
That's Walden, too, relentlessly on message.
The Trump Question
Walden's always been an enthusiastic player in the sport of politics. He once served as the Oregon House majority leader – the top person in charge of the party caucus – and he's been closely involved in Republican congressional campaigns.
Sessions, the Texas congressman, roped Walden into serving two terms as his deputy when Sessions ran the National Republican Congressional Committee, which oversees House GOP campaigns. In the 2014 and 2016 cycles, Walden took over the chairmanship. He said he spent 285 nights on the road during that four-year period, campaigning for GOP candidates.
Walden helped grow the House GOP majority to a modern-day high in 2014 and largely preserved it in 2016. On the day after Trump's election, he sounded like a winning football coach.
"I don't know how to say it, but we kicked their tails last night," he said. "And we did it knowingly, willfully, thoughtfully and with a lot of planning."
Democrats think they can use anger at Trump to retake the House. But Walden's heavily Republican district isn't on their ambitious 91-seat target list.
His powerful chairmanship helped him raise $2.5 million in campaign donations in the first nine months of 2017. That's more than the four other members of the Oregon House delegation combined. His top contributors include a who's who of interests before his committee: The National Association of Broadcasters, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Comcast and Valero Energy, according to the website Open Secrets.
And if body language tells you anything, Walden’s developed a nice relationship with the president. In an October ceremony at the White House, Trump entered the room and reached across another official to shake Walden’s hands and exchange a few words.
In the span of 17 minutes, Trump also shook Walden’s hands two more times and reached out to clap him on the back.
"Greg has been so incredible on this subject," Trump said at one point.
Later, he told the crowd he expected Walden to be with him on the upcoming tax cut bill. Walden smiled genially and nodded back.
"He appreciates the work I'm doing on these things," Walden said months later, "and so, yeah, I have a good relationship."