For some lawmakers, ‘none of the above’ was only answer on House budget votes

For some lawmakers last week, “yes” was never the right answer.

In all, nine Democrats and five Republicans pulled the “no” lever on all seven budgets the House considered on Wednesday and Thursday, which included offerings of all ideological stripes. 

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But in a shift from last year, when some Democrats felt there were no good choices for centrists, lawmakers’ reasoning for voting no across the board was more varied this time around. 

Several GOP lawmakers continued to deride their own party’s budget proposal, crafted by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), for its treatment of Medicare and other entitlement programs, while other Republicans complained about the funding for foreign wars. 

On the Democratic side, there was concern that a proposal modeled after President Obama’s fiscal commission was being thrown together too quickly, with Blue Dog Democrats ending up split on the measure.

But at the same time, a half-dozen of the Democrats who opposed each option also have pushed for legislation that would cut off lawmaker pay if Congress fails to pass a budget on time.

And with the House and the Senate unable to agree on a budget resolution since 2009, one of those six, Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-Iowa), said his "no" votes were basically the equivalent of throwing his hands up in protest.

“It is time to hit the restart button,” Loebsack, who voted for a Democratic budget alternative in 2011, told The Hill in a statement. “Congress needs to actually negotiate a deal that can be passed by both chambers, rather than follow the same path that has led to the stalemate for the past year.”

Still, the “none of the above” caucus did see its numbers drop this year, from roughly two dozen to 14, even as there were more than a couple repeat members.

Some centrist Democrats who voted against all five budgets in 2011 threw their support behind a proposal this year from Reps. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) that incorporated the ideas of the fiscal commission. 

But backers of that alternative said there was deep behind-the-scenes division over whether to bring it up for a vote, since all centrists were not yet in agreement on how the proposal should look. 

The amendment from LaTourette and Cooper also did not exactly match the framework put out by the fiscal commission chairmen, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, containing deeper spending cuts, less revenue and a different cap on Medicare and Medicaid spending. In the end, only 38 House members ended up backing it, including Blue Dogs like Reps. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) and Dan Boren (D-Okla.).

Six other members of the coalition — Reps. John Barrow (Ga.), Ben Chandler (Ky.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Jim Matheson (Utah), Mike McIntyre (N.C.) and Mike Ross (Ark.) — voted for none of the budgets, and none of their offices returned a request for comment. 

Barrow, Chandler, Matheson and Ross are also co-sponsors of the No Budget, No Pay Act, with several of them releasing recent statements stressing the need for Congress to work together and craft bipartisan budgets. Loebsack and Rep. Larry Kissell (D-N.C.), another "no" vote on all seven budgets, are also co-sponsors of that measure, which has been signed on to by more than 40 lawmakers.

“Developing a budget that can pass the House, Senate, and be signed into law by the president is the most basic part of our job in Congress, and we shouldn’t get paid if we don’t do our job,” Barrow said in a statement circulated in late February.

Rep. Kathy Hochul (D-N.Y.), whose 2011 special-election victory was aided by the backlash to the Medicare proposals in last year’s Ryan budget, rounded out the Democrats who voted against all seven budgets.

A Democratic aide said that Hochul is adamant that Medicare not be cut in the deficit debate, which led her to again oppose Republican budgets and the alternative based on Bowles-Simpson. But the New York freshman also felt that the Democratic budget authored by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) did not cut discretionary spending enough.

Three Republicans — Reps. Walter Jones (N.C.), David McKinley (W.Va.) and Denny Rehberg (Mont.) — also supported none of the budgets for a second consecutive year.

McKinley and Rehberg have opposed the Ryan budget both years because of its cuts to Medicare, which the West Virginia Republican labeled “drastic” on Thursday. 

But the GOP House members who voted against all budgets — who also include Reps. John Duncan Jr. (Tenn.) and Ed Whitfield (Ky.) — generally said that none of the budgets cut spending enough. 

The most conservative budget alternative, from the Republican Study Committee, cuts spending by $7.5 trillion and balances within five years. 

But a spokesman for Duncan said the congressman, who has not supported the wars of the last decade since voting for the initial invasion of Afghanistan, could not get behind a budget that still funds the foreign conflicts.

Jones, meanwhile, has prided himself on opposing every debt-ceiling increase over the last eight years. And while the RSC budget does balance in 2017, it requires a debt-limit hike in the process. 

As for Whitfield, the Kentucky Republican said the budget proposals needed to do more to tackle mounting deficits. But his office did not respond to questions about why the congressman voted against the RSC alternative.

“After reviewing the different proposals, I didn’t feel they offered an effective plan to balance the budget and provide the needed reform to preserve Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security,” Whitfield said in a statement.

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