GOP looks to reduce spending after hearing criticism back home
Republicans are eyeing ways to rein in spending this week after facing a barrage of criticism back home for swelling the federal deficit with a massive government funding package.
Republican lawmakers who ran on a platform of fiscal responsibility say they are feeling the heat from constituents outraged over government spending.
“They’re upset. They’re saying, ‘What are you guys doing up there?’ ” Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), a member of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, said of his constituents. “If the Republicans stand for anything, it’s fiscal responsibility.”
The House is slated to vote Thursday on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, while GOP leaders are in talks with the Trump administration about clawing back some of the funding hikes that were recently adopted in the 2018 omnibus spending bill.
Neither idea is likely to go very far in Congress, however, which has some skeptics calling the moves nothing more than a gimmick designed to boost the party’s fiscal bona fides ahead of the midterm elections.
“That will be a symbolic measure that won’t get enacted. … It’s a messaging vote,” retiring Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee, told The Hill.
The decision to bring balanced budget legislation to the House floor comes just weeks after Congress passed a $1.3 trillion government funding package, which conservative members balked at and President Trump briefly threatened to veto. The package was passed because of Democratic support, with 90 Republicans voting “no” in the House and 23 GOP lawmakers opposed in the Senate.
Lawmakers also passed a massive tax-cut bill in December, which is projected to add more than $1 trillion to the deficit before accounting for economic growth. Few Republicans have offered any reservations about approving that measure, in contrast to the spending package.
The balanced budget amendment, sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), would require Congress not to spend more than it brings in. It also would require a “true majority” in both the House and Senate to pass tax increases and a three-fifths majority in both chambers to increase the debt limit.
The decision to take up the measure stems from an agreement struck between Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker (R-N.C.) in October. Ryan agreed to a vote on the amendment in exchange for conservative support on a procedural budget measure needed for Republicans to move forward on tax reform.
The move could help shield Republicans from attacks in both the primaries and the general elections this November, where the GOP is scrambling to hang on to their majorities in the House and Senate.
Democrats will certainly try to use the deficit as a club over Republicans’ heads in the midterms. Already, Democratic leaders have seized on the news that GOP leaders will put a balanced budget amendment on the floor.
“Republicans’ decision to bring forward a radical GOP balanced budget constitutional amendment next week is an act of breathtaking hypocrisy and an open assault on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement last week.
“It is clear that GOP deficit hawks are not endangered, but extinct. Democrats will continue to fight to responsibly reduce the deficit, protect seniors, and create millions of good-paying jobs.”
The House passed similar legislation in the 112th Congress. But the amendment has virtually no chance of passing the Senate, as it would need Democratic support as well as ratification from the majority of states.
While conservative hard-liners largely support the proposal, critics argue adding a constitutional amendment could weaken economic activity and exacerbate recessions by limiting the government’s ability to spend money.
Still, conservatives like Brat argue that even if it doesn’t pass the Senate, it would be helpful to put Republicans and Democrats on the record.
“If nothing else, it will at least showcase who is voting which way, even if it doesn’t go through,” he said. “It’s valuable to show the American people who is for fiscal responsibility.”
Another idea being floated by GOP leaders is deploying an arcane budget maneuver to cancel out some of the funding increases that were adopted in the omnibus.
Trump has made no secret about his unhappiness with the massive spending bill, even threatening to veto the legislation just hours before he ended up signing it.
With the president reportedly feeling buyer’s remorse over the omnibus, GOP leaders, including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), have recently started discussing the idea of a so-called rescission package to nix some of the spending authority in the bill. The White House would be responsible for drafting the package of rescissions and then sending it to Congress for approval.
“It’s a bit unclear how this would play out since it hasn’t happened in a long time. That said, this is an idea congressional leaders are taking seriously,” said one GOP source.
The maneuver is popular with House conservatives because if the claw-back bill passes the House, it could pass the Senate with just a simple majority because it is a privileged resolution. The Budget Act of 1974 allows for the process.
But the proposal faces a number of potential hurdles in the Senate.
For one, the rules would allow Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) to force Republicans to take a variety of tough political votes.
There is also concern that the rescission package would poison the well on all future spending talks, since Republicans negotiated with Democrats to draft the omnibus.
Finally, it’s unclear whether there would even be enough Republican support for the plan in the Senate, especially if the proposal calls for slashing funding from popular spending programs.
“I have difficulty seeing that one take flight,” retiring Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.) told the Hill. “That would be a tricky two-step.”
The spending cut proposals are undoubtedly being considered with the midterm elections in mind, but there could also be other factors at play.
Dent suggested that McCarthy, who is a top contender to replace Ryan if he retires after the midterms, is only entertaining the idea of a rescission package to appease Trump and conservative House members — two constituencies whose support may be crucial in a bid for the Speaker’s gavel.
“So why are we doing a rescission package? Out of fear that this could affect climbing up the leadership ladder,” Dent said.
Juliegrace Brufke and Scott Wong contributed.