House GOP struggles to unify over budget ideas
House Republicans are struggling to unify as the party tries to hash out a cost-cutting budget strategy, creating headaches for Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as he launches high-stakes talks with President Biden over raising the debt limit.
Republicans charged into the year newly energized with their House majority, and all factions of the conference say they want to take concrete steps to rein in federal spending.
But that’s about where the agreement ends.
Defense hawks are fighting to maintain — or even increase — military spending, putting pressure on GOP leaders to slash other domestic programs, including the major entitlements.
Moderate Republicans are wary of cutting Medicare and Social Security, shifting pressure back on the Pentagon and other discretionary programs.
And the staunchest budget hawks are demanding that GOP leaders balance the budget within a decade, which is virtually impossible without steep spending reductions in defense, entitlements or both.
The clashing priorities have forced GOP leaders into a high-gear campaign to iron out the internal differences and rally the disparate groups into a unified front as the negotiations with Biden and the Democrats begin to heat up.
“We’re gonna have to talk our way through this,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), chairman of the House Rules Committee.
Asked about the months ahead as Republicans gird for the debt-limit fight, Cole said one of the biggest challenges the party faces is itself.
“Coming together as a conference and what’s a very small majority,” he said, adding it will take some time “coming to a common proposal and sticking together and, frankly, not pointing fingers at one another.”
“I can assure you that the right wing of our conference won’t be comfortable with everything in any agreement, and the left wing won’t be happy about what they have to give up,” he said.
Launching the bipartisan talks, McCarthy and Biden huddled Wednesday at the White House. Afterwards, the Speaker downplayed any internal GOP divisions, saying Republicans are “very united” as they dig in their heels for the budget fight.
But the conference has shown otherwise, forcing an early leadership scramble to coalesce the various factions.
McCarthy, as a concession to conservatives who initially opposed his Speakership bid, had promised a budget that would eliminate all deficit spending within a decade, beginning with the effort to reduce 2024 discretionary spending to 2022 levels. And conservatives are ready to hold him to his promise.
“My position is pretty simple. Go to ’22 levels,” said Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), who has been among the most vocal conservatives pushing for spending cuts.
But those calls have raised concerns among defense hawks wary of how the Pentagon budget, which is largely discretionary, might fare.
“I won’t vote for a bill that cuts defense spending, and I think most of the conference agrees with me,” said Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), a member of the Armed Services Committee who is running for Senate.
Roy said he’s sympathetic to those concerns. But if the Pentagon hawks want to preserve defense programs, he warned, they’ll have to agree to even steeper cuts elsewhere.
“What I want to say … to my hawk friends: We can fund defense at the levels you just funded in ’23, but you’ve got to ratchet back nondefense to 2019,” Roy said. “If you’re not comfortable doing that, well then you better start getting a little religion with holding defense in check.”
“You want to go find waste over there [at the Pentagon]?” he added. “Find that.”
Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-Texas), chairman of the Budget Committee, is pointing to the spike in nondefense discretionary spending in recent years — including spending on the COVID-19 response — as an opportunity to cut “bloat” without affecting the Pentagon.
“There are plenty of things outside of defense, and that’s what we aim to focus on,” he told Fox Business Network on Thursday.
The debate surrounding entitlement programs is proving to be equally as charged.
Historically, Republicans have opposed the very concept of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, characterizing them as “socialist” programs that should be replaced by private enterprise. But the programs are enormously popular across party lines, and a long list of Republicans are now vowing to preserve those benefits as they seek ways to slash deficits.
“We take Social Security and Medicare off the table,” McCarthy said this week on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program.
That sentiment has run afoul of more conservative voices warning that the entitlements are doomed to insolvency if Congress doesn’t step in with changes. The specifics have gone largely unmentioned, but Republicans in the past have pushed proposals to raise the age for Social Security benefits and apply means-testing to Medicare — concepts that Democrats flatly oppose.
“We’ll never negotiate on that,” Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) said this week of Medicare and Social Security.
Given the thorny politics surrounding the entitlements, more and more Republicans are, like McCarthy, signaling their support to keep those benefits intact. Yet others warn that, as the last of the baby boomers reach retirement age, the programs will be squeezed further, requiring Congress to intervene.
“The real drivers here are [that] we have an aging population that’s retiring very rapidly and living a lot longer than any other generation before it. … It’s not fiscally sustainable right now. To me, that’s the underlying problem,” Cole said.
“Discretionary stuff, again, we can come to a decision. But you got to recognize, when we achieved balance in the ’90s, it really was a huge peace dividend,” he said. “People forget how much we cut out of defense back then.”
During his CBS appearance, McCarthy said that, outside of the entitlements, every program will be scrutinized for potential cuts, including defense.
“I want to make sure we’re protected in our defense spending, but I want to make sure it’s effective and efficient,” McCarthy said Sunday. “I want to look at every single dollar we are spending, no matter where it is being spent.”
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, has signaled his intention to cut defense spending by weeding out waste and eliminating so-called woke programs. But economists warn that it will require more than the elimination of “waste, fraud and abuse” for Congress to cut into a deficit that came in at $1.4 trillion in 2022.
As the debate evolves, top Republicans are scrambling to get the conference on the same page, particularly as the party tries to shrug off its dramatic start to the year following McCarthy’s chaotic bid for Speaker last month.
Republicans huddled in the Capitol on Wednesday, just hours before McCarthy’s meeting with Biden, to get members up to speed around the debt limit and its stakes.
McCarthy characterized the meeting as an “education,” particularly for the conference’s large freshman class, while also noting that the bulk of the party consists of members “who’ve never been in the majority.”
“Part of this is a process to get it unified,” Cole said. “Educate all the people, get everybody’s input, make sure the Speaker has the broadest set of ideas and advice before he goes in.”
But in the absence of specific proposals for deficit reduction, rank-and-file Republicans are getting antsy — and starting to ask questions.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) said lawmakers understand the leaderships’ reticence — “They want room to negotiate,” he said — but he added that members “are pushing them for more specifics.”
“My stance is there is no negotiation unless you have things you’re asking for,” Crenshaw said. “Every member has proposals, I have pages of proposals. Our leadership doesn’t.”
Brad Dress contributed.
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