GOP wary of budget blowup

Cameron Lancaster

Don’t write the epitaph for the House Republican budget just yet. 

Members of the powerful Republican Study Committee (RSC) are pushing back against a statement from the group that calls for breaking the budget deal negotiated last year between then-Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerEXCLUSIVE: Pro-Hillary group takes 0K in banned donations Ryan: Benghazi report shows administration's failures Clinton can't escape Benghazi responsibility MORE (R-Ohio) and Democrats.

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Abandoning those spending levels would divide the party and make passage of a budget blueprint this year nearly impossible.

But several RSC members say the decision reached in the closed-door meeting of their 17-member steering committee wasn’t unanimous, and might not indicate a hard-line stance from the 170-member voting bloc.

“It’s not the final chapter in the budget drama that is folding out,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a member of the House Freedom Caucus and the RSC.

“I think a number of us have been very open to a variety of options to see where that might take us in exchange for higher number,” Meadows said. “The RSC [position] doesn’t really change that.”

The RSC on Thursday evening issued a policy statement that called for scrapping the two-year budget deal by seeking $30 billion in additional cuts.

The RSC must have agreement from three-quarters of its steering committee to adopt a policy position. A committee aide on Friday declined to say how many of the 17 votes were in favor of the policy statement.

Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) was among those who did not vote in favor. She supports keeping the two-year budget deal in place to retain the increases in defense spending that the party has already won. 

Hartzler said she doesn’t believe the statement will sway lawmakers in either direction. 

“Just because the RSC steering committee recommends this as their position doesn’t mean that it will necessarily influence a lot members,” Hartzler said.

The RSC laid out its position against the spending levels just one week before Super Tuesday, when many House Republicans — including its chairman, Rep. Bill FloresBill FloresTop conservative calls for 'less trash talk' from Trump GOP fears next Trump blowup The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (R-Texas) — face primary battles.

Flores on Friday denied that the committee was timing its position for the primaries. Still, members say cutting spending is a clear priority for voters in an year dominated by “outsider” candidates.

“Having a lower number there is probably more indicative about the sentiment of people back home,” Meadows said.

The pushback from RSC members signals that the GOP's budget standoff will continue into next week, when Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.) is expected to outline a more detailed plan for getting a vote on the House floor.

Many RSC members say they are still eying the proposal from Price that would keep the $1.1 trillion spending caps from last fall’s deal in place, while promising separate action to tackle entitlement spending. 

Most House Republicans, from Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanThe only common ground between Donald Trump and Paul Ryan is an "R" America isn't afraid of the NRA, and Congress shouldn't be, either Which GOP pols will actually show up at the convention? MORE (R-Wis.) to the Freedom Caucus, have agreed the House should pass a budget. Doing so would give the party advance to present its fiscal priorities and ideas ahead of the fall elections. 

While members say the GOP's budget plan may not yet be doomed, leadership still faces an immense challenge in drafting a deficit-reduction bill that is acceptable to fiscal hawks.

Republicans said there is growing support for an effort to tackle fraud and abuse from Medicare, which would cut mandatory spending but also light a political fire over benefits. 

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a member of RSC who opposed the policy statement, said he believes GOP leadership ultimately has support from at least 200 members to keep the current spending levels, even if lawmakers aren't revealing their positions publicly.

He said much of that support would come from the RSC. 

"Let me make a bet with you: Most of those 170 members would vote for the [leadership] budget,” said Cole, a long-time member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), a founding member of the Freedom Caucus who has pushed for lower budget numbers, acknowledged the RSC’s position was “helpful” for his argument, but said it doesn’t meant the fight is over.

“Tide is turning? I don’t know about that,” he said. “No one’s given up on this yet.”

The RSC is also facing resistance from defense hawks, including those — like Hartzler — who are part of the committee.

Flores has said he supports "a national defense that meets the growing threats our nation faces," and did not specifiically call for cuts to defense. Still, other Republicans said any budget at the lower spending levels would harm the military.  

“There are a lot of defense hawks in the RSC, and they’re obviously concerned about reduced spending with defense,” said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), who does not belong to the RSC. “Defense would hurt substantially.”

- Scott Wong and Mike Lillis contributed. 

This post was updated March 1 at 1:04 p.m.