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The Hill Interview: Budget Chair Black sticks around for now
Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.) is not ready to give up her gavel just yet.
The chairwoman of the House Budget Committee, who is running for the Tennessee governor's mansion, had been expected to step down from the committee after the budget's passage on the House floor, planned for Thursday.
"I'm focused on getting this budget as far as we can get it, and obviously off the floor is the next step in the process, and then it will have to go to the conference committee," Black told The Hill in an interview at her Capitol Hill office.
That process could take weeks, as the Senate is scheduled to mark up its budget in committee Thursday and expected to bring it to the floor two weeks later. If budget chairs are included in negotiations over a final spending deal for the year, which has a Dec. 8 deadline, Black could choose to stick around longer.
She also said she remains undecided as to whether she will vacate her seat ahead of the August GOP primary for governor, where she faces a crowded field. Black is one of the top candidates in the deep-red state, where she's running against candidates like state House Speaker Beth Harwell and businessman Randy Boyd. But a recent poll found no candidate above 10 percent in the primary.
For all the work Black has put into moving the budget forward, it may be bittersweet to see it progress to its next phase, where much of its policy will be diluted or eliminated.
Democrats will insist on having their say on final spending legislation, which will require at least eight Democratic votes in the Senate. That will render the House budget's spending plan as little more than a starting position in negotiations.
Its other major provision, $203 billion in mandatory spending cuts to bring down the deficit over a decade, has little chance of passing in the Senate, though Black said she intends to push for it.
"I, of course, would like to see the form of our mandatory spending in that resolution, I think that's an important thing for us to do as we look at the growth, we also ought to be looking at our spending," she said.
Without those elements, the budget's main purpose is to pave the way for tax reform, something House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) made explicit this week.
"The reason we're bringing the budget up this week is because we want to pass tax reform," he said.
The budget unlocks a process called reconciliation, which Republicans plan on using to pass tax reform to bypass threat of a Democratic filibuster in the Senate. Rather than cut the deficit by $203 billion, the Senate version calls for carving out $1.5 trillion in increased deficits to fund the tax cuts. It appears likely to be adopted in the conferenced budget.
On the tax plan, Black, who also sits on the Ways and Means Committee, pushed back on analyses that say some middle-class taxes would go up.
"I don't plan on having a plan that does that, our committee does not plan on having a plan that does that. I think you have to look at what the dials are. You don't even have the income brackets on yet," she said.
But she also resisted the notion that the plan would offer most of its benefits to the wealthy by dropping the top income rate from 39.6 percent to 35 percent and scrapping the estate tax. The latter now only applies to families with estates larger than $5 million.
"No decision has been definitively made on [the top rate], whether that will be what is done or not," she said, though she was adamant that the top rate should not increase beyond its current point to finance the tax plan.
Looking toward Nashville, Black is working to shore up her conservative base.
She declines to suggest who might replace her Senate colleague, Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who said he will retire after his term ends in 2018. Likewise, she has no suggestions for who might take her congressional seat or take the budget gavel.
Following the Sunday night mass shooting in Las Vegas, the deadliest in modern American history, she toes the Republican line on gun control.
"It's mental illness that is the root cause of these atrocities," she said.
When pressed on why the U.S. has such disproportionate levels of gun death - guns are 10 times more likely to kill Americans than people in other developed nations, according to a study by the American Journal of Medicine - she did not waver.
"I think if you look at other countries ... they have deaths from other things that we don't necessarily have high deaths in. So let's just take a look at what's happening in Europe, where there have been tragic instances over there, it wasn't with weapons, it was with cars. So are we going to take all the cars away?" she said, referencing terror attacks in Europe, where terrorists have killed dozens of people driving vehicles into busy crowds.
"If you look back at the tragedies that we have had where there have been mass murders, it has been people that had mental illness, and after the analysis is done - we see in almost all of those cases, whether it was the one up in Connecticut, or whether it was the one in Virginia - that people would say that person had mental illness. The person who shot Steve Scalise had a mental illness," she continued, referring to her House colleague who was shot in June and recently returned after months of rehab.
The position will resonate in Tennessee, where a majority of voters oppose gun control measures.
Black is hoping that her ability to usher through a budget, one she calls "the most conservative budget in over 20 years," will resonate as well.