GOP downplays importance of budget with debt ceiling looming

House Republicans are deemphasizing the importance of a GOP budget in the context of debt-ceiling talks, signaling their blueprint might not even be finalized until after the conference figures out its moves on raising the federal government’s borrowing limit.

It’s a significant shift for the GOP that comes after hard-line lawmakers during the 15-ballot Speaker’s election demanded a budget showing sharp spending reductions for the upcoming 2024 fiscal year that would balance the budget in 10 years.

Yet finishing a budget will be difficult given differences among Republicans over how much to cut spending. And while a House budget can be easily ignored or delayed, the debt ceiling can’t be avoided.

“We need action on the debt limit immediately,” House Budget Committee Chairman Jodey Arrington (R-Texas) said on Wednesday when asked if he expected action on the debt limit before Republicans can adopt a budget resolution.

President Biden has insisted that the House GOP produce a budget plan before he sits down with Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) about spending cuts and other concessions that the GOP wants tied to raising the debt limit. The president has also called for a “clean” increase without any concessions.

But Republicans are signaling they want to talk about the debt ceiling regardless of their budget.

“The reality is that the President’s budget did nothing to ripen this negotiation. The Republican House budget is going to do nothing to write this negotiation,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), chairman of the Main Street Caucus. “The only thing that will ripen this negotiation is the Speaker and the president sitting down and talking.”

Arrington told reporters Wednesday that getting 218 members — the number needed for a majority in the House — around a single budget is not “as easy as when I was a freshman here,” acknowledging the tough challenge Republicans face with a slim majority.

By decoupling the budget from talks on the debt ceiling, the GOP hopes to avoid putting a spotlight on internal divisions while raising the heat on Biden to come to the negotiating table.

Still, the two topics are intertwined and difficult to split apart.

GOP leaders have consistently called for nondefense discretionary spending to return to at least fiscal 2022 top-line levels in exchange for their votes on raising the debt ceiling. It’s a demand that goes back to McCarthy’s election as Speaker, when hard-line GOP members extracted the commitment.

In a letter to Biden asking for a debt limit negotiation meeting on Tuesday, McCarthy referenced “reducing excessive non-defense government spending to pre-inflationary levels,” which GOP members understood to mean the fiscal 2022 levels.  

Some Republicans initially said they planned to meet a mid-April deadline for producing a budget plan, but that is now delayed. Lawmakers in some of their public remarks are also downplaying it. 

“The budget — that thing is aspirational. Like, nobody ever sticks to the budget. What matters is the appropriations process,” said Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.).

“I don’t think the budget has anything to do with the spending limit,” said Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee. “There should be things in the spending limit conversation that are a segue to the budget, but you don’t have to have the budget first.”

Budget Committee member Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.), though, said that he would prefer if a conference budget was completed before deep debt ceiling negotiations, simply because “it would be nice to get it taken care of.”

Arrington has been tight-lipped about when the nation can expect to see the conference’s official budget blueprint, brushing off a question from reporters on Wednesday on whether the rollout will happen next month.

Republicans have blamed the delay in producing their budget blueprint on the drawn-out Speaker race, which delayed committee organizing, and the fact that Biden submitted his White House budget plan to Congress a month after the statutory deadline — a common occurrence for presidents.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), chairman of the House Rules Committee, expressed frustration about the emphasis on a budget from the White House, arguing the traditional process was not a concern when the debt ceiling was increased under Democratic control of Congress.

“You know, getting demands for a budget when the Democrats didn’t produce once for the last four years — they never produced a budget,” Cole said, though Democrats did pass budget resolutions as part of the reconciliation process. “Now we have to have a Republican budget? That didn’t seem to stop President Biden, you know, when he was working with a Democratic Congress, he didn’t tell [former Speaker] Nancy Pelosi [D-Calif.], ‘You have to have your budget.’”

Beyond those criticisms, Arrington also acknowledged on Tuesday that there also are “pockets of areas that are more politically sensitive” that have come up as the GOP-led budget committee works to produce a plan that can win sufficient backing in the conference. 

Though he wouldn’t divulge much information about what those areas entailed, Arrington said “there are areas that bring greater political sensitivity to members in competitive districts.” 

He added the goal remains to assemble a budget that can pass out of committee and, eventually, the chamber. 

Asked if he thought it was important for the House to pass a budget this year, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), a close ally of McCarthy, said on Tuesday that the budget is a “useful endeavor,” while discussing the party’s “vision for budgeting and bringing in out of control spending.”  

“I think it’s more powerful for us to pass actual spending restraint into law, and so I think we can work on both those things,” he said, adding that it is important to have a path to balancing the federal budget but is “married to what more we can pass.”

Tags debt ceiling Dusty Johnson Jodey Arrington Joe Biden Kevin Hern Kevin McCarthy Kevin McCarthy

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