By Rebecca Shabad - 03/15/15 02:30 PM EDT
House and Senate Republicans are about to face their next major test in the majority: approving the same budget blueprint.
The blueprint itself is nonbinding and doesn’t require a presidential signature. But it does set fiscal guidelines for bills that President Obama would have to sign. Those guidelines, in turn, comprise a framework for spending bills and, possibly, legislation that attempts to unravel parts of ObamaCare, reforms the tax code or raises the debt ceiling.
Republicans last approved a budget conference agreement in 2005, when Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) was Speaker and Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) was Senate majority leader.
The chairmen of the Budget committees, Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) and Sen. Mike EnziMike EnziRestive GOP freshmen eye entitlement reform Overnight Energy: Obama integrates climate change into national security planning Senate panel approves pension rescue for coal miners MORE (R-Wyo.), are expected to unveil separate budget resolutions next week, mark them up in committee and hold floor votes on them by the end of March.
Passing the blueprints in each chamber is only the first challenge, however. The next obstacle will be reconciling the GOP’s differences to produce a joint resolution.
Here are five major hurdles Republicans will have to overcome:
Sequestration budget caps are set to return in October and hawkish Republicans and Democrats are demanding the spending limits be lifted. Armed Services Chairmen Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) recently called sequestration a “disaster.” McCain said last week he won’t vote for a budget blueprint that doesn’t raise the caps.
Enzi, however, said that adjustments cannot be made in the resolution because Congress instead needs a separate piece of legislation to change the law.
Some Senate Republicans are pushing for a deficit-neutral reserve fund to be included in the blueprint. That would at least set the stage for negotiations later this year over spending levels. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said the plan could involve closing loopholes and making small changes to entitlement programs in order to raise revenues and make savings.
Those Republicans, however, could later encounter a problem with conservatives in the House, some of whom have already indicated they don’t want to breach spending caps.
Many lawmakers, and the White House, are hoping for a deal similar to one reached in December 2013 by then-Budget Committee Chairmen Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) that relieved sequestration for two years.
Both GOP budgets are expected to balance within a decade or less. Senate Republicans said last week their blueprint would balance in 10 years, while House Republicans have hinted their blueprint would balance sooner.
Ryan’s last budget, which barely passed the House, balanced in a decade. He offered the resolution, of course, when Democrats still controlled the Senate, and the vote was seen as merely symbolic.
This time around, House Republicans actually have the chance to go to conference with their Senate counterparts and propose major policy changes to send to Obama’s desk.
“There’s probably no one in the caucus who would want it to be less than [10 years],” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said last week. “I hate to say this, as someone who would like to do it in two. … Even 10 years is a heavy lift, but something we all known at a minimum has to occur.”
Steve Bell, who worked as a GOP staff director on the Senate Budget Committee in the 1980s, with Bill Hoagland, now of the Bipartisan Policy Center, said the two men have spoken with former colleagues who still work on Capitol Hill about the realities of a balanced budget.
“We say, ‘You understand that Bill and I tried that when we ran the Domenici-Rivlin Commission and at no time — at no time — during that 30-year period did we ever balance the federal budget,’ ” Bell said.
“This is a problem Republicans have,” he added. “You have to be very careful what you wish for" after winning the Senate last November, he said.
2016 presidential, Senate elections
With Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Graham mulling White House bids, presidential considerations will almost certainly play into how they cast their votes.
Twenty-four Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are also up for reelection next year, and some will face tight races in Democratic-leaning states. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) might decide to seek a more moderate blueprint in order to give endangered colleagues some cover.
Corker suggested last week that Republicans are a little rusty on the budget process and realize this time, they can really make a difference.
“We’ve just now been in the majority now after eight years in the wilderness and I think, you know… people are now focusing on the budget in a very different way,” he said.
The obscure budget procedure is a way to usher through major policy changes. Democrats used it to pass ObamaCare in 2009. Reconciliation only requires a majority vote in the Senate and is not subject to a filibuster, but any bills it produces would still need Obama’s signature.
Republicans have mentioned using reconciliation to possibly pass an ObamaCare repeal, tax reform, changes to energy policy, a transportation overhaul and a raising of the debt limit. The last two are the most pressing: the Highway Trust Fund, which finances infrastructure spending, is slated to run dry by the end of May, and Congress is expected to enter another debate over the debt ceiling in the late summer or fall to avert a default.
Budget experts have cast doubt on whether reconciliation could legitimately be used for tax reform and a repeal of ObamaCare. Some key lawmakers have implied they won’t need reconciliation to change the tax code because they could pass a separate bill for that. On the healthcare law, there are dozens of procedural obstacles in the Senate that could prevent Republicans from torpedoing it across the board.
The Supreme Court might tear ObamaCare apart on its own, without Republicans needing to seek recourse via reconciliation. In the King v. Burwell case, the high court could rule against the Obama administration and take away, from people in 37 states, subsidies that are used to buy ObamaCare on state-based health exchanges.
Experts say even if Republicans reach a conference agreement before the Supreme Court rules in June, they could delay the reconciliation process until after that, to wait for the outcome of the court case.