Washington (CNN) – Top House Republicans appeared divided Thursday on whether to keep pushing a controversial plan to overhaul Medicare – creating what some GOP aides admit is a confused message on an already politically charged topic.
Leading into the first bipartisan talks on reducing the deficit hosted by Vice President Joe Biden, the Washington Post reported Thursday that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor "…said Republicans recognize they may need to look elsewhere to achieve consensus after President Obama 'excoriated us'" for proposing to transform Medicare.
A senior House GOP source told CNN the story caught other House Republican leaders off guard, since it appeared Cantor was taking the GOP Medicare proposal off the table in negotiations before even stepping into the room.
"It makes it look like we're not going to hold the line, and makes it look like we're going to cave," said the GOP source.
After returning from the Biden- led budget meeting Thursday, Cantor sought to clarify.
"I never said we are taking Medicare off the table. The reality is this president has excoriated our budget plan and the Medicare proposal in the plan. I certainly would like to see what their proposals are and that will be the subject of future talks," the number two House Republican told CNN and other reporters in a hallway off the House floor.
Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner tried to quash the idea that Republicans would abandon their Medicare proposal.
"Let me make this clear: When it comes to increasing the debt limit and the need to have reductions in spending, nothing is off the table, except raising taxes," said Boehner.
But it wasn't only Cantor who raised the prospect of punting on their Medicare plans at this sensitive time. Even the author of the idea himself, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, is suggesting it may have to be put aside until after the 2012 elections.
"We may not get the grand slam agreement, but we may get a single or a double. We are under no delusion that we're going to get everything we've always wanted in this one bill. But let's get a down payment on that," Ryan said during an economic event Thursday.
House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Michigan, whose committee would write Medicare overhaul legislation, also suggested Thursday he may not move forward with the GOP plan.
"I'm not really interested in just laying down more markers. I'd rather have the committee working with the Senate and with the president, focusing on savings and reforms that can be signed into law," said Camp at an appearance at the National Press Club.
Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer seized on the GOP split, releasing a statement, saying, "The Republicans are slowly realizing their plan to privatize Medicare is a political disaster, but until they renounce their vote for it, they are still going to own it."
While confusion over the Republican message played out on what should be part of these negotiations, Democrats involved in the talks publicly said they continue to keep all items on the table.
Rep Jim Clyburn, D-South Carolina, one of the two House Democratic members on the working group, told reporters after the meeting, "nobody has dug in on anything."
The House GOP proposal would transform the Medicare system for anyone age 55 and younger, creating a so-called premium support system that would give senior citizens a lump sum amount of money for private health coverage.
Democrats are making the House GOP Medicare proposal their central political target. During a two week congressional recess in April, Democrats bombarded vulnerable House Republicans who voted for the plan with campaign tactics like robo calls and radio ads, accusing them of jeopardizing the health program for seniors.
Republicans all over the country faced frustrated voters in town hall meetings, who in some cases were egged on or joined by left-leaning activists attacking the GOP congressmen on Medicare.
With a Democratic run Senate and Democratic president, senior GOP sources have privately admitted for some time they recognize the Medicare proposal will not get very far.
But recognizing that reality in private and appearing to admit it in public are quite different. GOP sources say it is raising questions among conservatives, who already believe their leadership gave up too much in last month's spending fight, and among other rank and file Republicans who took political risks in voting for the Medicare plan.
"There are some people who say Ryan plan is politically toxic for us. But we are already there," said a senior GOP source.
"Democrats are going to campaign against us on this. What's done is done."
– CNN Congressional Producer Rachel Streitfeld contributed to this report