By Erik Wasson and Russell Berman - 03/14/14 01:17 PM EDT
House Republican leaders are polling their members on whether they would support a budget from Rep. Paul Ryan that makes deeper spending cuts than in past years, in an effort to gauge whether they have enough votes to pass it off the floor.
The leadership has told rank-and-file members that the budget would likely stick to the spending cap of $1.014 trillion for fiscal year 2015, which the House approved as part of the December agreement negotiated by Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).
But in order to achieve the 10-year balanced budget Republicans consider a priority, Ryan will have to propose deeper cuts in the years after 2015 than in the budget that passed the House last year.
Party leaders need the votes of many of the 62 conservative Republicans who voted against the Ryan-Murray deal without losing more centrist members who would likely oppose deeper cuts to federal programs, since Democrats are likely to unanimously oppose the plan.
Lawmakers said that during an informal whip check on Thursday, they were asked a simple question: Would you support a Ryan budget that balanced within 10 years?
Some members are saying that there is no need to spend time debating a budget during the election year because appropriators have already started crafting 2015 spending bills based on the top-line numbers in the two-year budget deal.
But House Republicans spent years criticizing Senate Democrats for skipping a budget, and several lawmakers argued it’s important for the party to put out a detailed vision beyond the straightforward spending caps.
“Budgets are really aspirational documents,” Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) said. “They are designed for the purpose of setting out your priorities, and I see nothing wrong with, whether we have an agreement or not, coming out again with another blueprint to show what our priorities are.”
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said repeatedly in recent weeks that the party intends to vote on a budget, but he has told members privately that no decisions have been made.
The quandary this year is that Ryan will likely have to cut spending much more deeply in order to show no deficit by 2025 because the Congressional Budget Office said in February that slower economic growth will contribute to a $1 trillion increase in projected deficits over the coming decade.
That is causing some heartburn for centrist members who face competitive elections in November.
“The issue is a political one,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said. “Speaker Boehner has been clear the decision is not made yet.”
A GOP leadership aide downplayed the canvassing of members this week.
“We are talking to our members, something we do constantly, about budget priorities," the aide said.
One of the crucial decisions Ryan faces in crafting a budget is whether to adopt the $1.014 trillion spending level for 2015 in the Ryan-Murray deal or for a lower number, such as the $995 billion sequestration level.
Several members said they have heard Ryan plans to use that number and adopt deeper cuts in out years to get to a balance.
“Yes, it would require [deeper out-year cuts], but we’re not talking about a 10 percent cut or anything like that. We’re not talking about that,” said Rep. James Lankford (Okla.), a member of the GOP leadership who serves on the budget committee.
Budget committee members say less of a concern has been how to handle Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp's (R-Mich.) outline for tax reform. Camp's ideas can be said to conform to last year's budget proposal to cut tax breaks in order to lower the top individual rate to 25 percent, even though Camp imposes a surtax on some earners making their effective rate 35 percent.
Members said there would be no need to endorse Camp's full proposal in the budget language, and it could be alluded to as an option.
Lankford said members of the committee are still going through the discretionary budget and have not turned to entitlement reform or questions about whether to include Camp’s tax plan.
“We still have a ways to go on it. It’s not done,” he said. “We’ve started going through the details of every segment of the budget and we’re working our way through, but it’s not at a point where we can turn it over, by any means. We haven’t made a lot of decisions still.”
Fleming said Ryan might be able to get support from some lawmakers who voted against the Ryan-Murray deal by adopting some proposals from the more aggressive Republican Study Committee budgets of previous years. “I think you would likely see more RSC members support that,” he said.
Budget Committee member Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) voted against the Ryan-Murray deal, but said he would be open to voting for a Ryan measure that contains its top-line number as long as it balances in 10 years. "It is a moral imperative to do a budget," he said.
But deeper cuts could jeopardize support from more vulnerable members.
Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), who hails from a swing district, said he had been told that this year’s budget would be “virtually the same” as last year’s and would not have a problem voting for it again.
“If it’s the same budget you voted for last year, you’ve already voted for it once,” he said.
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said he was “agnostic” about doing a budget in 2014. “I’m fine either way,” he said.
Democrats have been eager to attack Ryan budgets in previous years for their proposals to partially privatize Medicare and make deep cuts to Medicaid and food stamps.
This year would likely be no different.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the top Democrat on the Budget Committee, said the indecision shows the GOP is facing a bad situation on the budget.
“They are in a tough position because of all their rhetoric over the last four years about the paramount importance of having a budget and yet it is going to put them in a bind on a lot of big issues,” he said.
“They are going to have to decide whether it is politically risky to roll out another budget that provides tax breaks for very wealthy people and slashes investments for kids and important safety net programs,” Van Hollen added.