House 'deems' passage of Ryan budget to start appropriations process

The House voted Tuesday afternoon to "deem" the GOP budget approved by Congress in order to begin working on spending bills.

Language deeming approval of the Ryan budget was passed as part of a rule governing floor consideration of two 2014 appropriations bills. Republicans said House rules require a budget to be deemed as passed in order to start work on the spending bills.

As expected, members approved the rule in a mostly party-line 227-194 vote.

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The language drew a stiff rebuke from Democrats since the House budget writeen by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has been approved by the House, but not the Senate. 

They have been pushing Republicans to agree to a conference committee with the Senate to work on a joint House-Senate budget. 

Vast differences between the House and Senate suggest such a conference would not reach a deal. 

Ryan's budget not only sets a discretionary spending level for 2014 that includes $91 billion less than the Senate Democratic budget, but it also looks to boost defense spending within that limit, at the expense of other programs Democrats are defending.

In addition, Democrats argued that the GOP budget locks in place the sequester, which cut $80 billion from 2013 spending and will require another $76 billion cut to 2014 spending.

"What's before us is before us, a ratification of sequester, which starts with 'S,' which stands for 'stupid,' " said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). "It is a terrible process."

The Senate Democratic budget, for its part, includes nearly $1 trillion in new taxes opposed by Republicans. 

Several Democrats called on their colleagues to oppose the rule and press the GOP to agree to a House-Senate conference. Democrats have been hopeful that a conference might be able to reach a budget agreement that restores the sequester cuts to programs like Meals on Wheels.

"Turn off the sequester before we consider spending bills," Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said in opposing the GOP rule to deem the Ryan budget.

The rule allows consideration of just two bills this week, but House Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said the "deeming" language in the rule is a "scheme" to put in place the entire GOP budget for 2014.

"I find it especially cynical that our colleagues would use the spending bills on veterans and military construction as the vehicle to pass their budget levels, which will result in dramatic cuts to the part of the budget that fund our kids' education, and that fund the investments in science and research to find cures and treatments to things like cancer," he said.

Republicans rejected the idea that they were looking to sneak the Ryan budget into law, and noted that the rule just deems passage of the budget in order to start work on appropriations bills. The GOP has said this deeming process has happened in several past Congresses, including ones led by Democrats.

They also noted that the rule says the Ryan budget will be deemed as passed "pending the adoption of a concurrent resolution on the budget for fiscal year 2014." Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.) asked if Democratic opposition to the rule means the party's members doubt the word of Republican leaders that efforts are being made to get to a budget conference.

The debate reflects the frustrations Democrats have had in getting to a House-Senate budget conference, which they hope to use to mitigate or even fully replace the sequester. Republicans have not yet agreed to go to a formal conference, and have instead tried to work out the guidelines of a budget deal in talks between Ryan and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

The GOP has said there is no point to holding a conference until some guidelines are in place, but Democrats have tried to put pressure on Republicans for the past several weeks to set up the formal process. In debate today, Van Hollen asked Woodall directly, "I just want to know why you're afraid to go to conference. Why is that?"

But he never got an answer from Woodall or other Republicans debating the rule. Republicans generally focused on the rule as a pathway to two spending bills that are widely supported — funding the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and Military Construction/Veterans Affairs.

Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) defended the Veterans Affairs bill as one that would create electronic health records for veterans, which would help them receive medical care more quickly. He also defended the DHS bill as one that would ensure border security for the next year.

Despite pressure from Democrats to get to a conference, there are no signs that any meeting, formal or informal, would be able to find a way around the huge differences between the House and Senate budgets.

The Senate bill, for example, allows $1.058 trillion in discretionary spending, a level that supposes the sequester does not exist. And while Republicans have said they are willing to replace sequester cuts with other cuts, Democrats have said they want a big chunk of the sequester to be replaced with new taxes.

With passage of the rule, the House started work on H.R. 2216, the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act.

That bill allows $73.3 billion in discretionary spending, most of which goes to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The bill spends $1.4 billion more than the 2013 bill.

Members will debate the bill for an hour, and then move to amendments. The rule allows for any germane amendment to get debate and a vote — as a result, votes could still take place late Tuesday evening before the House passes it.