McConnell vows ‘major effort’ on budget

McConnell vows ‘major effort’ on budget
© Greg Nash

BALTIMORE — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell expects Paul to return to Senate next week Former Hill staff calls for mandatory harassment training Gaming the odds of any GOP tax bill getting signed into law MORE (R-Ky.) vowed Thursday to make a major effort to pass an election-year budget despite serious reservations from his vulnerable colleagues.

“We’re certainly committed to trying to pass a budget this year, no question about it,” he said at a joint press conference with Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in Baltimore, where congressional Republicans are holding their annual retreat.

“We’re going to make a major effort to pass a budget,” he added.

McConnell touted passage of a budget plan last year as one of the biggest accomplishments of the Senate GOP majority. He blasted Democrats for shirking what he called their legal responsibility.

“Another way to measure dysfunction is not passing a budget, which is required by law. Four of the last five years, the previous majority didn’t pass a budget,” McConnell told reporters in December.

Vulnerable Senate Republicans would like to avoid voting on a budget this year, raising questions about whether McConnell will follow through on his promise.

And passing the 2015 budget — a huge victory for McConnell — wasn’t easy.

It passed in a 52-48 vote, with Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), two presidential candidates, bucking their leader.

Paul and Cruz could be problems for McConnell again in 2016, and other GOP senators in tough races are hardly excited about the vote.

“There’s a lot of trepidation,” said one Republican senator who requested anonymity to discuss the atmosphere of the GOP conference.

Skipping the budget, however, would put McConnell and the Senate at odds with Ryan and draw charges of hypocrisy from Democrats.

Republican senators facing tough reelections say passing a budget this year is not necessary because leaders set the top-line spending number for the annual appropriations bills in a deal last year that raised the debt limit.

They say they’re not necessarily scared of the political ramifications but don’t want to waste time that could otherwise be spent moving the 12 annual spending bills on the floor instead of lumping them into one huge catchall package at year’s end, as has become commonplace in recent years.

“I want to get onto regular order process on appropriations, and I just don’t see what a budget will do for us,” said Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonDemocratic Homeland Security members request additional DHS nominee testimony Key differences between the Senate and House tax plans Senate panel delays vote on Trump’s Homeland Security pick MORE (R-Wis.), a member of the Senate Budget Committee, who faces one of the toughest races in the country.

“There may be some arguments for doing it, I wouldn’t totally reject it, but my current thinking would be let’s start working as soon as we can” on passing spending bills, he added.

Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanSenate GOP reveals different approach on tax reform GOP senators: Moore should step aside if allegations true Senate set for clash with House on tax bill MORE (R-Ohio), another vulnerable incumbent, argued Wednesday that a budget is not needed to move the spending bills because the top-line number is already set.

“It’s not necessary to achieve what all of us want, which is a normal appropriations process where you have a chance to do good oversight and good policy because you have a [top-line] number,” he said.

Portman downplayed the political dangers of working through successive votes on amendments — known as a vote-a-rama — which are likely to be full of politically charged measures. Senate rules give the minority broad leeway to offer amendments during budget debates.

“We’ve done it before. I don’t think they have any new ones,” he said.

On Thursday, Senate Democratic Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidTop Lobbyists 2017: Grass roots Boehner confronted Reid after criticism from Senate floor GOP in uncharted territory rolling back rules through resolutions MORE (Nev.) threatened to force Republicans to vote on controversial proposals from their party's presidential front-runner, Donald Trump, such as banning Muslims from entering the country.

A budget debate on the floor would give Reid a prime opportunity to offer such amendments.

Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyNewly declassified memos detail extent of improper Obama-era NSA spying Overnight Tech: FCC won't fine Colbert over Trump joke | Trump budget slashes science funding | Net neutrality comment period opens Appeals court decision keeps lawsuit against NSA surveillance alive MORE (R), another budget panel member, who is running for reelection in Democratic-leaning Pennsylvania, said he’s not sure whether the Senate should vote on a budget this spring.

“Well, we do have the top line. I’m still thinking it through,” he said.

Ahead of the retreat, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) said Wednesday that he is more concerned about reforming the budget process than passing a budget.

Specifically, he wants to change the tradition of voting at the end of the budget debate on a big stack of amendments late into the night. This is when the minority party has its chance to force vulnerable incumbents across the aisle to vote on tough measures.

“My main concentration this year will be to change the Budget Act, which hasn’t been done since 1978,” Enzi said. “One of the things we’ll look at in the reform is the vote-a-rama, which takes a lot of time.”

The reforms, if enacted into law, wouldn’t take place before 2017.

Enzi said he is in talks with Republican members of the budget panel about whether it is necessary to pass a budget this year.

“I’m working on that, but I’m not ready to commit. I’m talking to [House Budget Committee] Chairman [Tom] Price [R-Ga.] and talking to our leadership and talking to the people on my committee because they did do a top-line set of numbers last year,” he said.