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House approves GOP budget

House approves GOP budget
© Greg Nash

House Republicans adopted a 2016 budget in a 228-199 vote on Wednesday that represents a major victory for GOP leaders after a rocky start to their year.

The budget would increase defense spending next year by boosting the Pentagon’s war fund to $96 billion, well above President Obama’s $58 billion request.

The provision won over dozens of defense hawks, including members of the Armed Services Committee who have called for more robust resources for the Pentagon.

Only 17 Republicans voted against the budget, a slight bump from the 12 who voted against last year’s budget. Every House Democrat present voted against it.

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The Senate is expected to vote on its GOP budget by the end of the week, which, if approved, will set up a challenge for Republicans in both chambers.

While the two GOP budgets are similar, important differences will make it difficult to reconcile them — the next step in the budgetary process. The last time a Republican-controlled Congress approved a joint conference agreement was in 2005.

If a joint conference agreement does pass both chambers, Republicans will be able to trigger a budget procedure known as reconciliation that could be used to target ObamaCare, reform the tax code and raise the debt ceiling, among other things. Bills written under reconciliation rules could not be blocked by a Senate filibuster.

“It’s important that you have the opportunity to put on the president’s desk a bill to repeal ObamaCare and replace it. That puts it front and center for the presidential campaign,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus.

For now, passage of the House GOP budget represents a big victory for Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerBoehner compares Trump to Teddy Roosevelt Boehner: 'Thank God' I wasn't in the middle of election Ryan delays committee assignments until 2017 MORE (R-Ohio) and his leadership team.

Boehner struggled earlier this year to get his conference to agree to a bill funding the Department of Homeland Security, and GOP leaders stumbled last week trying to move their budget blueprint through the House Budget Committee.

To win passage on the floor, leaders used the unusual strategy of holding separate votes on two blueprint plans: one authored by Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.) to please fiscal hawks and a second Price budget with increased defense spending.

GOP leaders told their conference that the budget that won the most votes on the floor would be the budget adopted by the House. The first Price budget won only 105 votes, with dozens of Republicans defecting.

The second Price budget was approved in a narrow 219-208 vote, with 26 Republicans voting “no.”

About 30 minutes later, the House voted to adopt it in the 228-199 vote.

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and his chief deputy, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), sought out reporters after the leadership’s preferred budget cleared the chamber — a rare move that underscores how important Wednesday’s victory was for the vote counters.

“Budgets are always tough,” Scalise said just off the House floor, dubbing the budget vote a “unifying experience.” 

Wednesday’s vote came after Scalise and McHenry sought to intervene on defense hawks’ behalf before the Budget Committee marked up Price’s original budget last week. After that failed, GOP leaders eventually won more robust defense spending on the House floor.

“The toughest thing is that you’re dealing with a lot of different issues,” Scalise said. “We worked for weeks to bring fiscal and defense hawks together. A lot of people thought it couldn’t get done”

The budget would balance in nine years by cutting $5.5 trillion in spending over the next decade. None of the $96 billion in the war account would be offset with spending cuts.

Both the House and Senate GOP budgets keep spending caps known as sequestration that were imposed by a 2011 budget law. The Defense Department’s base budget in both blueprints is $523 billion, while the ceiling for non-defense domestic programs is $493 billion.

The GOP is relying on the war fund, which falls outside the budgetary ceilings, to increase defense spending.

Senate Republicans are also seeking $96 billion for the war account next year. But their blueprint contains a caveat — a 60-vote point of order against any spending bill that would raise the fund above $58 billion.

That means any spending bill that includes more than $58 billion for the war account would need a supermajority of 60 votes to win approval in the Senate.

The House budget includes reconciliation instructions to 13 authorizing committees, directing them to produce deficit-cutting bills by mid-July.

Like previous House budgets drafted by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), now Ways and Means Committee chairman, the House budget would partially privatize Medicare by introducing a premium support system. Medicaid would be converted into block grants to states.

Price would repeal the alternative minimum tax, but otherwise backs away from tax reform details included in previous Ryan budgets.

The budget would streamline the government’s energy programs in an effort to focus more on the private sector and repeal parts of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. It includes a reserve fund to prop up the Highway Trust Fund, which finances infrastructure projects and is scheduled to run dry by the end of May.

The 17 Republicans who voted against the budget were Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.), Ken Buck (Colo.), Barbara Comstock (Va.), Rick Crawford (Ark.), Chris Gibson (N.Y.), Tim Huelskamp (Kan.). David Jolly (Fla.), Walter Jones (N.C.), John Katko (N.Y.), Raúl Labrador (Idaho), Frank LoBiondo (N.J.), Thomas Massie (Ky.), David McKinley (W.Va.), Martha McSally (Ariz.), Mick Mulvaney (S.C.), David Schweikert (Ariz.) and Jim Sensenbrenner (Wis.).

Bernie Becker contributed. 

Updated at 9:06 p.m.