Ryan, GOP face budget squeeze

Ryan, GOP face budget squeeze
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Paul RyanPaul RyanHouse Freedom Caucus chair: There's a different standard for people like IRS head Ryan lights Capitol Christmas tree Overnight Healthcare: Hospitals plot attack against ObamaCare repeal MORE is facing a series of hurdles as he tries to pass his first budget since becoming Speaker of the House.

Conservatives are revolting against the higher spending levels President Obama and GOP leaders agreed to last fall, and the Wisconsin Republican is being squeezed by a tight calendar: A longer than usual summer recess to accommodate the political conventions means the House is looking to complete its budget in early March.

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It’s also tougher to pass legislation during a presidential election year. A budget blueprint that falls shy of conservative spending targets could expose lawmakers to attacks from outside groups and top GOP presidential candidates like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).  

“It’s a credibility issue, and at some point if we are going to gain or garner that trust back from voters, if we say we are going to hold the line [on spending], then we’ve got to do it,” said freshman Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), a Baptist minister and a member of the conservative Republican Study Committee.

“I’m not opposed to digging in on this.”

That RSC members like Walker are contemplating opposing the fiscal 2017 budget is giving the GOP leaders some serious heartburn, a leadership source said. If all House members vote, Ryan can only afford about 28 GOP defectors and still pass the budget, assuming Democrats oppose it.

That poses some tricky math for Ryan, a former Budget Committee chairman who’s been urging his party to stick to the spending levels that Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) negotiated with the White House before he resigned last fall.

Ryan is trying to head off a rebellion from conservative lawmakers who oppose any budget that fails to push spending back down to original sequester levels. Some in the nearly 40-member House Freedom Caucus this week have warned leadership both privately and publicly that they won’t get on board unless it slices tens of billions from the Boehner-Obama deal.   

“If we don’t do something dramatically different, we’re going to end up with the same result,” Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), a Freedom Caucus co-founder, said at a Heritage Action event this week. “We’re going to end up passing an omnibus or a [continuing resolution] at the end of the year with a small number of Republicans and a large number of Democrats.”

Ryan has made it his top priority during his first full year as Speaker to push a budget and all 12 appropriation bills through the House — a low bar, but something that hasn’t happened in decades. He wants to get back to a more traditional appropriations process and end the era of fiscal cliffs and mega deals.

But if his GOP conference can’t even rally behind a budget, it will derail that process and spur another government-funding crisis on Sept. 30, just weeks before the presidential election.

Publicly, senior Republicans are expressing optimism that factions of the 246-member GOP conference can hammer out their differences and unify behind a spending plan.

“I think we’ll ultimately get to the right place. We seem to be more together than in the past,” Small Business Committee Chairman Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) told The Hill.

RSC Chairman Bill Flores (R-Texas) has acknowledged it will be “tougher” to convince his members to back a budget that doesn’t lower spending levels for non-defense programs. But he’s not ready to sound the alarm bells just yet.

“My level of angst is real low at this point,” Flores, a member of Ryan’s advisory group, said in an interview. “I just feel like if we work together, we’ll get this done.”

Ryan is downplaying any divisions within his conference, saying passionate debates over the budget happen every spring. In a closed-door meeting with House Republicans on Thursday, Ryan urged his rank-and file members to keep their powder dry until they can resolve their issues internally.

“One thing I have some experience with around here is putting together budgets and passing budgets. This is no different than any other year,” Ryan told reporters this week. “We always have these family conversations about what our budget should look like and how our budget should be rolled out and what its contents are.

“I’m actually trying to have that family conversation earlier than we ever have before. Why? Because we have a constrained schedule this year.”

Normally, the House takes up its budget in April, but Ryan’s team has expedited the process this year. Due to the presidential election, the lower chamber is out for seven weeks, starting in mid-July, to allow for the party conventions and for members to campaign back home.

The House also lost a week due to last month’s massive snowstorm.

Under the accelerated schedule, the House Budget Committee, chaired by Ryan ally Tom Price (R-Ga.), plans to mark up a budget the last week of February, with the full House voting on it the first week of March. Ryan hopes to pass the dozen House appropriations bills before July, even though some lawmakers think that's unrealistic.

For all of the conservatives demanding lower budget numbers, there are other Republicans who argue that the Speaker’s hands are tied. To deviate from the Boehner-Obama deal would blow up the appropriations process and cause a big spending pile-up at the end of the year, they said.

“Look, we don’t have any leverage, so what are we going to give up that [Democrats] want in exchange for a lower number,” said one House Republican who identifies as a fiscal hawk yet supports current levels.

“The reality of the world we’re in is we don’t have enough leverage to lower that number.”

Naomi Jagoda contributed.