Prospects fade for GOP budget

Cameron Lancaster

The GOP’s chances of passing a budget this year are dwindling as the Senate prepares for an impending brawl over a Supreme Court nominee this spring.

House and Senate Republican leaders have publicly declared they intend to complete the full appropriations process this year for the first time in two decades, just in time for the fall elections. 

But the party’s aggressive timeline is quickly moving out of reach, according to GOP aides and budget experts, making it increasingly likely the party will be forced to resort to another short-term funding measure or omnibus spending bill later this year.

GOP leaders have said they want to pass all 12 annual spending bills before Congress's August recess, hoping to put the party’s governing capabilities on display ahead of the elections. Any move otherwise could damage Republicans politically after they repeatedly vowed to restore "regular order" upon gaining control of both chambers last year.

Anxiety is now building as the battle over replacing the late Justice Antonin Scalia threatens to take up weeks of the Senate’s already tight calendar this spring.

"That adds a whole other dynamic to what is already a fluid legislative situation,” a GOP aide said. “Even in a perfect world, it’s almost impossible to get those 12 bills passed.”

It’s also complicating the careful maneuvering of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellRubio: GOP Congress could go in different direction than Trump Pelosi blasts GOP leaders for silence on Trump Reid: Groping accusations show Trump’s ‘sickness’ MORE (R-Ky.), who hopes to keep his GOP majority next year. Two dozen Republicans are up for reelection this fall, with about a half-dozen in vulnerable seats.

The outcome for a budget plan is less certain in the House, where conservatives are forcing Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanCalifornia House Republicans facing tougher headwinds Breitbart escalates war on Paul Ryan GOP: Obama ‘in denial’ about healthcare law failures MORE (R-Wis.) to hit the pause button as they seek deeper spending cuts.

“There are serious doubts over whether the House and Senate can agree to [a joint budget],” said Stan Collender, a longtime aide to both the House and Senate Budget committees. “It’s not even clear if the House can agree to one ... that McConnell will want to subject his members to voting on one.”

With an abbreviated calendar year in a presidential election cycle, it was always going to be a tall order to pass all 12 appropriations bills. The Supreme Court fight and the mounting pressure from House conservatives has made it far more difficult.

“It’s becoming increasingly likely that they won’t be able to get individual bills done by July,” said Collender, who is now executive vice president at Qorvis MSLGroup. “They just won’t.”

Problems are mounting for both Ryan and McConnell, after telling their rank-and-file members at a joint retreat last month they intended to restore regular order and pass a GOP budget this year.

Ryan on Friday, for the first time, acknowledged that not passing a budget is a possibility this year, though it would be an outcome that most House Republicans would despise.

Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) said he wants to pass a budget “to do what we were elected to do, and not [wait] until the eleventh hour in the middle of September to pass a CR that none of us like,” referring to the short-term continuing resolution, or CR, spending bill.

Another conservative, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) said earlier this year that passing the budget was the GOP’s “one job this year.”

“If we are here next year having just passed an omnibus, that is an F-minus [for Ryan]. If we pass 12 appropriations bills and stand our ground and force the Senate to face these issues, that’s an A,” Massie told The Daily Signal shortly after the GOP retreat.

Ryan told members last Friday he had no timeline for agreeing to a budget resolution, an attempt to smooth over concerns within the party’s far-right flank. Several House conservatives said they didn’t expect that plan to be laid out for several weeks, a timeframe that would jeopardize the House GOP’s aim of putting a bill on the floor by early March.

Ryan is looking for a way out of budget jam that helped doom his predecessor, Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerTrump may pose problem for Ryan in Speaker vote Conservatives backing Trump keep focus on Supreme Court Vote House Republicans out MORE (R-Ohio). As he briefed members  Friday, the former Budget Committee chairman underscored that he wanted to return to regular order to give the party a chance to spell out its vision ahead of the elections.

Ryan warned that without a budget blueprint, the House would be forced to vote on another CR, which he described as counter to regular order.

But as he faces a jittery conservative caucus opposed to last fall's budget deal, Ryan acknowledged the party may not be able to pass all 12 appropriations bills even if it agrees to a budget.

“But we have an obligation to try,” he said, according to a person in the room. One GOP aide described the remarks as “expectation management.”

So far, House conservatives, several of whom take credit for helping to oust BoehnerJohn BoehnerTrump may pose problem for Ryan in Speaker vote Conservatives backing Trump keep focus on Supreme Court Vote House Republicans out MORE, said they were satisfied by Ryan’s decision to slow down the process, even if it meant less time to write spending bills.

“We get in trouble when we rush,” Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.), a member of the House Freedom Caucus, said. “We’re having these discussions now, last year we weren’t having those discussions. Decisions were made differently than they were now.”

“He is giving members an opportunity to be able to think about those, and add to them and make a decision about what we will do as a conference, rather than just having something thrown out there,” added Rep. Diane BlackDiane BlackIvanka sells Trump childcare to Capitol Hill Trump calls congresswoman to stage at child care policy speech Overnight Healthcare: Zika funding stalemate drags on | Tighter rules for ObamaCare sign-ups | New EpiPen probe MORE (R-Tenn.).

Slowing down the process is already causing headaches for GOP’s budget writers, who say they are still committed to holding markups of the legislation by the end of this month.  

House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.) said after Friday’s meeting that he still planned to hold a markup on a budget by the end of February. If the bill is passed by the committee, a vote would be held the first week of March. 

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a member of the House Appropriations panel, also expressed concerned that dragging out the budget process would take away time from writing the spending bills.

“I’m still optimistic that we’re going to be there,” he said about the prospects of a budget.

“I actually think the problem tends to be, we have members who demand more than you can possibly deliver,” said Cole, who oversees Department of Health and Human Services spending for the House Appropriations Committee. “If you want to change this stuff, go win the presidential election. That’s actually a more helpful.”