Republican senators with presidential ambitions face a huge decision on whether to back — or buck — GOP leaders on the budget.

This week’s budget vote will be dramatic because Senate GOP leaders have to minimize defections to pass their blueprint, and White House hopefuls know their votes will reverberate on the 2016 campaign trail.

Not surprisingly, most of the 2016 crowd is keeping quiet about their strategy for Thursday’s budget votes.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R), Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (R) and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R) have been mum in private meetings, giving little hint to their rivals on whether they will vote for the budget’s final passage. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the fourth GOP senator expected to pursue a presidential bid, says he will vote “yes.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) can afford only three defections, or the budget will fall short. Every Democrat is expected to vote “no.”

Cruz and Paul have also kept what amendments they will offer a secret.

“As a matter of fact, they’re very quiet in all of our meetings. I think they’re trying to figure out where they’re going to be,” said a GOP senator, who requested anonymity to comment on internal discussions.

Rubio has filed more than two-dozen amendments, some of which could put his competitors in a tough spot.

He has co-sponsored with Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) a proposal to increase defense spending to the levels former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates proposed in his fiscal 2012 budget. His office noted Wednesday it would achieve the minimum funding levels recommended by the National Defense Panel.

It’s one of several tough votes aspiring presidential candidates may have to take on defense.

The Senate is expected to begin voting on amendments at noon on Thursday and continue until all senators agree to wrap up the debate and move to final passage of the budget, a marathon that could last 14 hours or longer.

Members will have to vote on a myriad of amendments. While the roll calls are not binding votes, they nevertheless serve as important markers.

Pentagon funding levels have split fiscal hawks from defense hawks.

Rubio has cast his lot with defense-minded Republicans, leaving Cruz and Paul with their own tough decisions to make as they both vie for Tea Party voters, many of whom are skeptical of foreign military intervention and concerned about the deficit.

Rubio has also laid down markers for what policy areas he will focus on over the next two years. He is calling for a deficit-neutral reserve fund to give Congress flexibility to move a welfare reform package.

He also has proposed placeholders to create tax credits for low- and middle-income students to attend private schools and to create a universal tax credit for higher education.

The toughest vote the White House hopefuls will cast is on final passage of the budget itself, which is expected between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. Friday.

Cruz, Paul and Rubio have all refused to say how they will vote, and they might be looking over their shoulders, waiting to see how the other two play the roll call.

A vote for the budget would garner respect from GOP leaders, but could be portrayed as support for a blueprint crafted by the unpopular Washington establishment.

Rubio said he is undecided because the budget assumes ObamaCare is the law of the land, embedding some of its fees in its baseline.

“I understand the argument that it’s a vehicle to get to the president’s desk a way of repealing ObamaCare, but I still have concerns about it,” he said Wednesday. “We haven’t made a final decision and I still want to see how the debate plays out on defense funding.”

He said the fate of his amendment to increase defense funding to the level favored by Gates would be an important consideration.

Passage of the Senate GOP budget would pave the way for special procedural rules that would allow leaders to move a reconciliation package on taxes and spending that would need only 51 votes to make it to President Obama’s desk.

Republicans hope to use it to circumvent the 60-vote threshold usually required of controversial legislation and pass an ObamaCare repeal bill.

Senate Republicans appeared confident Wednesday they would be able to pass the budget, with little serious opposition emerging over the course of two lunch meetings this week.

“It seems to me like we’re headed in the direction that it will pass,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.). “The conversations revolve around defense and spending, but it seems to me there’s a real concerted effort on the part of Republicans to pass a budget and resolve those differences.

“There’s a recognition that passing a budget is clearly critical to the rest of the agenda,” he added.

The budget roll call is the biggest vote Cruz will take since formally launching his presidential campaign at Liberty University on Monday.

While the proposed budget would balance in 10 years, it falls short of the ambitious vision Cruz laid out in a fiery speech. He called for a flat tax, abolishing the Internal Revenue Service and repealing the Common Core education standards.

The Senate GOP budget, by contrast, is a cautious document that kicks many of the toughest policy decisions faced by Congress down the road. Unlike the House GOP budget, the Senate document is careful not to spell out any specific reforms for Medicare and Medicaid, leaving it to the states instead.

Tags Budget Marco Rubio Rand Paul Ted Cruz
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