Skies darken for GOP budget

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House Republicans departed Washington on Wednesday for a two-week recess without moving any closer to a consensus on how to resolve their months-long budget battle.

Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanDemocrats plan 'day of action' to keep spotlight on guns Dem protest ignites debate about control of House cameras Gun-control supporters plan next steps versus NRA MORE (R-Wis.) will now have just four days to bridge wide gaps within the GOP on a trillion-dollar spending blueprint when members return in mid-April. An agreement on the budget has remained elusive for months, with GOP lawmakers refusing to give up on their own competing proposals.

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“I can tell you there is no agreement or consensus from the different groups,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who opposes the budget proposal from GOP leadership, said Wednesday. “There are very resolute positions, but still a willingness to negotiate.”

At least a half dozen ideas appear to be on the table when it comes to the budget, members said. Fiscal hawks want ironclad guarantees to slash the deficit if they’re going to vote on the spending levels negotiated by President Obama, especially in an election year.

One idea floated this week would be to entice House Republicans into beginning the appropriations process by taking up a defense spending bill already cleared by the Senate — without passing a budget.

Another idea — and the latest offer from GOP leaders, according to a source — would see the House GOP pass a budget with lower spending levels while agreeing to support higher spending levels if Obama agrees to sign several appropriations bills.

But veteran GOP budget-writers say many of the paths appear to be dead ends because fiscal hawks want even deeper cuts. 

“They are asking for things that I think are beyond the ability of the Speaker and our own leadership to promise,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla), a member of the budget and the appropriations committees, said in an interview with “CSPAN Newsmakers” on Thursday. 

A key faction within the House GOP — the Freedom Caucus — has taken a hard line against the party’s budget resolution that was outlined last week. Without the support of that 40-member voting bloc, the budget would fail on the House floor, likely forcing GOP leaders to fund the government with a stopgap bill later this year.

The budget blueprint, while largely symbolic, would officially mark the start of the GOP's appropriations process. Without that bill, GOP appropriators will automatically start drafting spending bills at the $1.07 trillion spending level that many conservatives despise.

The Freedom Caucus has called for GOP leaders to break last fall’s deal with the White House and revert to the previous spending caps of $1.04 trillion.

Members of that caucus say they have pitched “30 or 40” ways of cutting spending that would get them to a yes. They have repeatedly said they’re seeking “real,” “meaningful” reforms, but when asked about specific bills, most members won’t provide details. 

“It needs to be real,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Freedom Caucus Chairman, said repeatedly during a Heritage Foundation panel on Wednesday. When pressed, he again wouldn't lay out the caucus’s specific demands. 

“We can’t get into the specifics, necessarily on that, because of what bills can come up,” Jordan said. “But we know how it works around here.”

Other Freedom Caucus members, such as Meadows and Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), went further, suggesting that he would not support any attempt to cut the deficit unless it would be signed into law.   

“It’s got to be this year,” Huelskamp said when asked about what qualified as a real cut. “Real cuts are cuts that are actually signed into law.” 

In public and private, GOP leaders don’t appear optimistic about their chances. 

Ryan, the former House budget chairman, acknowledged during a closed-door meeting on Tuesday that he knew he didn’t have enough votes to pass the budget. The conversation quickly devolved into a “what if” debate about a shutdown this fall, members said.

But he insisted that he had more votes for the current budget than for a new one using numbers from the Freedom Caucus, which would break the White House deal and uproot the chances of “regular order” in appropriations. When asked for a breakdown of the vote totals, the leaders said they couldn’t say.

No members spoke out in opposition on Thursday, though it’s partially because some Freedom Caucus members say they no longer see the need to attend meetings about the budget.

“We are a little short in those discussions of hearing from the other side,” said Rep. Steve WomackSteve WomackA fix for the well-intended ethanol flop House Dems interrupt votes with push for gun bill GOP lawmakers blast Obama for 'unprecedented' overreach MORE (R-Ark.), a defense hawk who supports the higher spending levels. “You leave there thinking, ‘Wow, it’s pretty unanimous.’ Until you go to vote.”

With the clock ticking until the April 15 budget deadline, House Republicans are increasingly sounding the alarm about winding up with a major spending brawl right before the fall elections. The House returns for business on April 12.

The House last failed to pass a budget in 2010. Republicans upbraided Democrats for that failure ahead of their midterm election victories.

The situation was reversed this week, as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) used press conferences and statements to criticize the GOP for departing Washington without a budget in hand. 

“We’re busy trying to find a political equivalent of the square root of negative two,” Rep. Trent FranksTrent FranksGOP rebuffs doctors on gun research House GOP considers options post-Orlando Indian leader touts US relations in Congress speech MORE (R-Ariz.), a member of the Freedom Caucus, said Wednesday. “Mathematics are very, very impatient, they won’t wait for us to catch up. In the meantime, it could do irreparable damage to our party.”