Signs of GOP unity on House budget

Signs of GOP unity on House budget
© Greg Nash

Republicans began to unify around a House GOP budget proposal released Tuesday that would cut spending by $5.5 trillion over the next decade and balance in nine years.

House Budget Committee Chairman Tom PriceThomas (Tom) Edmunds PriceIsakson talks up bipartisanship in Senate farewell speech Hundreds apply to fill Isakson's Senate seat in Georgia Overnight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Warren faces tough choices on 'Medicare for All' funding | Dems demand answers on Tom Price's charter flights | Medicaid expansion nears 2020 ballot in Oklahoma MORE’s (R-Ga.) first fiscal framework won endorsements from conservatives who have frequently sparred with House GOP leaders.

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Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), who has been known to buck GOP leaders, said he wishes the budget included more specific entitlement reform proposals and balanced sooner, but he said he’ll vote for it and predicted so would a majority of the GOP conference. 

“While it’s not perfect, it moves the ball up the field in the right direction,” he said.

Some defense hawks, however, expressed skepticism that Price’s boosting of a war funding account to $90 billion would do enough to ensure increased defense spending.

Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) said that he had questions about Price's approach for boosting defense spending, and couldn't support the budget in its current form.

Price predicted the budget would clear the House next week.

“Sure. Absolutely,” Price told reporters, as his vice chairman, Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.), stood by nodding.

House Republicans have pushed through a budget in each of the previous four years, and Price’s first effort has broad similarities with those crafted by his predecessor, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

The budget process will take on new importance this year, with the GOP now controlling the Senate and top Republicans vowing to govern effectively. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike EnziMichael (Mike) Bradley EnziSenate approves stopgap bill to prevent shutdown Budget process quick fixes: Fixing the wrong problem Eleven GOP senators sign open letter backing Sessions's comeback bid MORE (R-Wyo.) will roll out his blueprint on Wednesday.

If the House and Senate can pass separate budget plans, their next challenge will be settling differences and passing a joint agreement, which would set top-line spending numbers for the next fiscal year.

That budget deal would also trigger the reconciliation process, which Republicans want to use to unravel ObamaCare. Reconciliation allows the Senate to send new policy bills to President Obama’s desk with only a majority vote.

House Republicans could lose up to 28 GOP votes and still pass their budget if every Democrat votes against it. Twelve Republicans voted against the GOP budget last year, which narrowly passed in a 219-205 vote.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a Republican Study Committee member who now leads the Freedom Caucus, told reporters in the afternoon that he and many of his conservative colleagues would likely be won over by the opportunity to target ObamaCare.

“I think reconciliation language will be a motivating reason for I think many of us to lean toward supporting the budget,” Jordan said.

Still, Price also has to worry about defections from Republicans concerned about national security spending, and his approach unnerved defense and fiscal hawks alike.

Price’s blueprint sticks to budget ceilings that were established by a 2011 deal that limits Pentagon spending to $523 billion in the fiscal year starting in October. To appease lawmakers who want a higher spending limit, the budget would significantly raise the war funding account, known as the overseas contingency operations (OCO) fund, to $90 billion next year.

Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), who has been leading GOP efforts in the House to boost defense spending, said Price’s plan doesn't go far enough. “The debate is going to be ongoing,” he said.

Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) voiced a different concern.

“I like a lot of different pieces of the budget. I like the fact that it balances in nine years," the fiscal conservative said. “I’m going to have some major difficulties with using the slush fund to pump up defense.”

There are signs that Price’s approach could win hawks over.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) on Monday appeared to endorse using the war fund to finance military activities normally paid for using the base budget. His Senate counterpart, John McCainJohn Sidney McCainBudowsky: Would John McCain back impeachment? Sharice Davids to vote for Trump impeachment articles: 'The facts are uncontested' Ex-Rep. Scott Taylor to seek old Virginia seat MORE (R-Ariz.),  changed his tune Tuesday and suggested he was open to the OCO proposal, which he had called a "gimmick" on Monday. 

Price said he believed his proposal to spend a total of $613 billion would satisfy defense-minded members.

Beyond the extra OCO funding, the resolution also includes a deficit-neutral reserve fund that would allow Price flexibility later this year to approve additional defense spending. A GOP aide, however, suggested Price would not agree to offsetting those increases with higher taxes. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is also pushing to include a similar reserve fund in the Senate’s budget, but said he’s open to tax hikes by closing loopholes in exchange for small changes in entitlement spending.

Those provisions are largely ways for Republicans to ensure that enough members of their conference vote for the GOP plan and prevent defections.

The Senate’s budget is also expected to stick to budget ceilings but would balance in 10 years. Republicans are aiming to hold floor votes on their plans by the end of next week.

Obama and top congressional Democrats were quick to slam the House budget, saying Republicans had swiftly dropped the idea that they were battling to help the middle class. 

“They were just kidding when they said that,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the top Democrat on the Budget panel. “It’s empty rhetoric.”

Van Hollen also insisted that Republicans had to rely on “budget quackery” — such as repealing ObamaCare while keeping its tax increases — to say their plan balanced within a decade.

But Republicans also noted that Democrats have been wrongly predicting for years that the budgets would hurt the GOP politically.

And on Monday, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) told reporters he thought the new budget would be the first step toward a broader deal similar to the agreement hatched in 2013 by Ryan and then-Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) that relieved sequestration for two years.

“I look at budgets as opening negotiating positions,” he said. “I think it's the next logical step toward eventually reaching a budget negotiation toward the end of the year.”

--This report was updated at 8:33 a.m. on March 18.