Tensions rise in GOP as deadline for budget nears

Tensions rise in GOP as deadline for budget nears
© Greg Nash

Senate Republicans are signaling that they are unlikely to pass a budget this year unless the House follows through on plans to pass a blueprint later this month.

Not passing a budget would break a promise Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDACA recipient claims Trump is holding ‘immigrant youth hostage’ amid quest for wall Former House Republican: Trump will lose the presidency if he backs away from border security Pence quotes MLK in pitch for Trump's immigration proposal MORE (R-Ky.) made in 2014, but it would also shield his vulnerable incumbents from politically damaging votes.

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“The House is wrestling with it, and the Senate traditionally follows the House. If the House doesn’t do it, we may not have enough to push it through here,” said Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsOvernight Health Care: Thousands more migrant children may have been separated | Senate rejects bill to permanently ban federal funds for abortion | Women's March to lobby for 'Medicare for All' Acting AG Whitaker's wife defends him in lengthy email to journalist Watchdog: Thousands more migrant children separated from parents than previously known MORE (R-Ala.), a senior member of the Budget Committee.

Sen. Mike EnziMichael (Mike) Bradley EnziSenate passes criminal justice overhaul, handing Trump a win Senate votes to end debate on criminal justice reform bill America needs more accountants in Congress MORE (R-Wyo.), the chairman of the Budget Committee, on Monday postponed action on a budget until after March, which means a committee markup and floor vote won’t happen before the end of March — if at all.

“The Senate Budget Committee will continue to discuss the budget, as well as improvements to the budget process that would increase fiscal honesty, stability in government operations and the ability to help govern our nation,” Enzi said in a statement.

Republicans told The Hill that the chances of a budget passing the House are below 50 percent.

Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanAEI names Robert Doar as new president GOP can't excommunicate King and ignore Trump playing to white supremacy and racism House vote fails to quell storm surrounding Steve King MORE (R-Wis.) is under competing pressures from defense hawks who want to boost military spending and fiscal conservatives who want to reform entitlement programs.

House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.) drafted a balanced budget proposal, but it failed to win over conservatives when he presented it last week.

Before moving on a budget, House conservatives want a promise from GOP leaders that they will attach entitlement reform programs to a must-pass bill later this year.  

“The proposal that was laid before many of us last week did not get the ball far enough down the field,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.).

Conservatives are upset that the October budget deal signed by President Obama and congressional leaders raised spending levels, wiping out the automatic cuts known as sequestration.

They want to offset the spending increase with mandatory spending reforms.  

“You would get conservatives to come around [if] you offset the higher number with some significant financial reform that needs to take place on the mandatory side of spending, whether it be with welfare reform or saving Medicare,” Meadows said.

Conservatives may settle instead for a House rules change that would make it more difficult for Congress to appropriate money for federal agencies and programs that lack up-to-date authorizations.

Both chambers of Congress would need to pass budgets and agree on a joint resolution in order to trigger a special budgetary process known as reconciliation. That process allows legislation to pass through the Senate with a simple majority vote; Republicans used it last year to pass an ObamaCare repeal package.

Reconciliation is viewed as an enticing incentive, but if the House remains stymied, there’s even less reason to act on a budget, Senate GOP sources say.

Republicans facing tough reelection races such as Sens. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanSenators look for possible way to end shutdown GOP reasserts NATO support after report on Trump’s wavering Leaders nix recess with no shutdown deal in sight MORE (Ohio) and Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonCongress sends bill renewing anti-terrorism program to Trump The Hill's Morning Report — Shutdown fallout — economic distress Hillicon Valley: Republicans demand answers from mobile carriers on data practices | Top carriers to stop selling location data | DOJ probing Huawei | T-Mobile execs stayed at Trump hotel as merger awaited approval MORE (Wis.) argue a budget isn’t needed because congressional leaders struck a deal in October that sets the top-line spending numbers for the annual appropriations bills.

Enzi stressed that point on Monday.

“The Senate already has top-line numbers and budget enforcement features available this year so that a regular order appropriations process can move forward while we continue to discuss broader budget challenges,” he said in his statement.

A senior Republican aide said the Senate would move ahead with passing appropriations bills even if it doesn’t approve a budget.

Failing to pass a budget would be embarrassing for McConnell, who often excoriated Democrats when they controlled the chamber for shirking their fiscal responsibility.

McConnell said Republicans would pass a budget every year if they won the majority, and in January pledged “a major effort” to do so.

Democrats on Monday accused Republicans of backsliding on their campaign promises.

“In addition to this being the height of hypocrisy from the same Republicans that screamed bloody murder on this issue for years, it’s proof positive that Republicans are terrified to make their governing argument in an election year,” said a senior Democratic aide.

“The Republican agenda of slashing entitlements and key middle-class programs in order to heap more tax cuts on the wealthy and special interests is a loser at the polls, so it’s no surprise they want to keep their priorities hidden from view,” the aide added.

Not every Senate Republican is happy with the prospect of skipping the budget. 

Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCainJohn Sidney McCainListen, learn and lead: Congressional newcomers should leave the extremist tactics at home Overnight Defense: Trump unveils new missile defense plan | Dems express alarm | Shutdown hits Day 27 | Trump cancels Pelosi foreign trip | Senators offer bill to prevent NATO withdrawal Bipartisan senators reintroduce bill to prevent Trump from withdrawing from NATO MORE (R-Ariz.) warned it would complicate his effort to increase defense funding.

“We can’t have $18 billion short. It’s just not acceptable,” McCain said Monday.

In the House — which, unlike the Senate, is not in session this week — GOP leaders are still debating their next move on the budget.

“Discussions on the budget continue, and ultimately House Republicans will make this decision,” said AshLee Strong, Ryan’s spokeswoman.

Conservative groups are putting heavy pressure on GOP leaders to abandon the $1.07 trillion spending level set by last year’s deal.

“Continuing to advance budgets that plunge us deeper into debt is to abdicate responsibility for our country’s security, at home and abroad,” Adam Brandon, the president and CEO of FreedomWorks, wrote in an op-ed for The Resurgent.

Josh Withrow, the legislative affairs manager at FreedomWorks, predicted conservative lawmakers wouldn’t back down.

“I think it would be hard for them to support a budget at the $1.07 trillion level and then go back to their districts and explain how they promised to rein in government and then supported increasing spending under a Republican Congress,” he said.

Even if House GOP leaders skipped the budget, they would still have to pass a measure setting the top-line spending number — a procedural requirement the Senate doesn’t have to deal with — in order to move appropriations bills.

The so-called budget deeming measure would likely need a large number of Democrats to help pass, say GOP lawmakers. Democrats would be more likely to support it than a formal budget because they want to pass appropriations bills.

Updated at 8:43 a.m.