Tensions rise in GOP as deadline for budget nears

Greg Nash

Senate Republicans are signaling that they are unlikely to pass a budget this year unless the House follows through on plans to pass a blueprint later this month.

Not passing a budget would break a promise Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellTrump hires Rand Paul's former digital director: report Overnight Finance: Trump threatens NAFTA withdrawal | Senate poised for crucial Puerto Rico vote | Ryan calls for UK trade deal | Senate Dems block Zika funding deal Overnight Healthcare: Blame game over Zika funding MORE (R-Ky.) made in 2014, but it would also shield his vulnerable incumbents from politically damaging votes.

ADVERTISEMENT
“The House is wrestling with it, and the Senate traditionally follows the House. If the House doesn’t do it, we may not have enough to push it through here,” said Sen. Jeff SessionsJeff SessionsTrump hopes for boost from Brexit vote GOP senators: Brexit vote a wake-up call Sessions warns of 'radical' Clinton immigration policy MORE (R-Ala.), a senior member of the Budget Committee.

Sen. Mike EnziMike EnziJudd Gregg: The silver lining Judd Gregg: A little change Lobbying World MORE (R-Wyo.), the chairman of the Budget Committee, on Monday postponed action on a budget until after March, which means a committee markup and floor vote won’t happen before the end of March — if at all.

“The Senate Budget Committee will continue to discuss the budget, as well as improvements to the budget process that would increase fiscal honesty, stability in government operations and the ability to help govern our nation,” Enzi said in a statement.

Republicans told The Hill that the chances of a budget passing the House are below 50 percent.

Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanOvernight Finance: Trump threatens NAFTA withdrawal | Senate poised for crucial Puerto Rico vote | Ryan calls for UK trade deal | Senate Dems block Zika funding deal Overnight Defense: Benghazi report fallout | Nearly 50 dead after Istanbul attack Lobbying world MORE (R-Wis.) is under competing pressures from defense hawks who want to boost military spending and fiscal conservatives who want to reform entitlement programs.

House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.) drafted a balanced budget proposal, but it failed to win over conservatives when he presented it last week.

Before moving on a budget, House conservatives want a promise from GOP leaders that they will attach entitlement reform programs to a must-pass bill later this year.  

“The proposal that was laid before many of us last week did not get the ball far enough down the field,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.).

Conservatives are upset that the October budget deal signed by President Obama and congressional leaders raised spending levels, wiping out the automatic cuts known as sequestration.

They want to offset the spending increase with mandatory spending reforms.  

“You would get conservatives to come around [if] you offset the higher number with some significant financial reform that needs to take place on the mandatory side of spending, whether it be with welfare reform or saving Medicare,” Meadows said.

Conservatives may settle instead for a House rules change that would make it more difficult for Congress to appropriate money for federal agencies and programs that lack up-to-date authorizations.

Both chambers of Congress would need to pass budgets and agree on a joint resolution in order to trigger a special budgetary process known as reconciliation. That process allows legislation to pass through the Senate with a simple majority vote; Republicans used it last year to pass an ObamaCare repeal package.

Reconciliation is viewed as an enticing incentive, but if the House remains stymied, there’s even less reason to act on a budget, Senate GOP sources say.

Republicans facing tough reelection races such as Sens. Rob PortmanRob PortmanOvernight Finance: Trump threatens NAFTA withdrawal | Senate poised for crucial Puerto Rico vote | Ryan calls for UK trade deal | Senate Dems block Zika funding deal Overnight Energy: Volkswagen reaches .7B settlement over emissions Senators rally for coal miner pension fix MORE (Ohio) and Ron JohnsonRon JohnsonPollster: Clinton leads in 5 battlegrounds Juan Williams: GOP sounds the sirens over Trump Vulnerable Republican seeks edge on homeland security MORE (Wis.) argue a budget isn’t needed because congressional leaders struck a deal in October that sets the top-line spending numbers for the annual appropriations bills.

Enzi stressed that point on Monday.

“The Senate already has top-line numbers and budget enforcement features available this year so that a regular order appropriations process can move forward while we continue to discuss broader budget challenges,” he said in his statement.

A senior Republican aide said the Senate would move ahead with passing appropriations bills even if it doesn’t approve a budget.

Failing to pass a budget would be embarrassing for McConnell, who often excoriated Democrats when they controlled the chamber for shirking their fiscal responsibility.

McConnell said Republicans would pass a budget every year if they won the majority, and in January pledged “a major effort” to do so.

Democrats on Monday accused Republicans of backsliding on their campaign promises.

“In addition to this being the height of hypocrisy from the same Republicans that screamed bloody murder on this issue for years, it’s proof positive that Republicans are terrified to make their governing argument in an election year,” said a senior Democratic aide.

“The Republican agenda of slashing entitlements and key middle-class programs in order to heap more tax cuts on the wealthy and special interests is a loser at the polls, so it’s no surprise they want to keep their priorities hidden from view,” the aide added.

Not every Senate Republican is happy with the prospect of skipping the budget. 

Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCainJohn McCainOvernight Defense: Benghazi report fallout | Nearly 50 dead after Istanbul attack The Trail 2016: 11 hours, 800 pages, 0 changed minds McChrystal backs McCain's Pentagon reform proposal MORE (R-Ariz.) warned it would complicate his effort to increase defense funding.

“We can’t have $18 billion short. It’s just not acceptable,” McCain said Monday.

In the House — which, unlike the Senate, is not in session this week — GOP leaders are still debating their next move on the budget.

“Discussions on the budget continue, and ultimately House Republicans will make this decision,” said AshLee Strong, Ryan’s spokeswoman.

Conservative groups are putting heavy pressure on GOP leaders to abandon the $1.07 trillion spending level set by last year’s deal.

“Continuing to advance budgets that plunge us deeper into debt is to abdicate responsibility for our country’s security, at home and abroad,” Adam Brandon, the president and CEO of FreedomWorks, wrote in an op-ed for The Resurgent.

Josh Withrow, the legislative affairs manager at FreedomWorks, predicted conservative lawmakers wouldn’t back down.

“I think it would be hard for them to support a budget at the $1.07 trillion level and then go back to their districts and explain how they promised to rein in government and then supported increasing spending under a Republican Congress,” he said.

Even if House GOP leaders skipped the budget, they would still have to pass a measure setting the top-line spending number — a procedural requirement the Senate doesn’t have to deal with — in order to move appropriations bills.

The so-called budget deeming measure would likely need a large number of Democrats to help pass, say GOP lawmakers. Democrats would be more likely to support it than a formal budget because they want to pass appropriations bills.

Updated at 8:43 a.m.