GOP leaders struggle to contain conservative anger over budget deal

GOP leaders struggle to contain conservative anger over budget deal
© Aaron Schwartz

Anger among conservative lawmakers boiled over Tuesday in the wake of a budget deal that will add hundreds of billions of dollars to the national debt, posing a challenge for GOP leaders.

The package is expected to pass Congress now that President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Memo: Biden seeks revival in South Carolina Congress eyes billion to billion to combat coronavirus Sanders makes the case against Biden ahead of SC primary MORE has blessed the agreement, but GOP leaders are being tested as they try to count votes amid conservative unrest about the spending agreement’s $320 billion price tag.

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“There are always Republicans who are going to say, ‘We think it might spend more here than we would have liked,’ but this is a divided government,” said Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSchumer requesting .5 billion in emergency funding on coronavirus Republicans give Barr vote of confidence Trump creates new headaches for GOP with top intelligence pick MORE (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican. “It probably won’t get all of our members, but I think it will get a lot of them.”

Congressional leaders are racing to get the bill to Trump’s desk before lawmakers leave town for the August recess. The House Rules Committee is slated to take up the measure Wednesday, paving the way for a floor vote this week.

The Senate is expected to take action the following week.

Top Republicans projected confidence Tuesday about the deal’s prospects, even amid pushback from the edges of both parties, as some progressives have complained about the high level of defense spending.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Energy: Murkowski, Manchin unveil major energy bill | Lawmakers grill EPA chief over push to slash agency's budget | GOP lawmaker accuses Trump officials of 'playing politics' over Yucca Mountain Lawmakers race to pass emergency coronavirus funding Trump upends controversial surveillance fight MORE (R-Ky.) defended the agreement, saying he makes “no apologies” for pushing for a two-year agreement and that he is “confident” it will pass the Senate.

“I make no apologies for this two-year caps deal. I think it’s the best we could have done in a timely divided government. The alternatives were much worse, a one-year CR, a sequester, perpetual chaos,” he said, referring to a continuing resolution.

Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner Mnuchin Sanders blasts Trump for picking 'completely unqualified' Pence for coronavirus response Treasury announces appointment of new IRS watchdog Pence taps career health official to coordinate White House coronavirus response MORE, the lead White House negotiator who discussed the deal with senators during a closed-door lunch on Tuesday, told reporters that Trump “absolutely” supports the deal and that he is “sure it will pass.”

“I just explained why this was a fairly negotiated deal. It’s important that we have bipartisan support,” he said when asked what his pitch to Republicans was.

But conservatives and budget hawks are airing their grievances about the higher spending and lack of cuts to help pay for the legislation.

“Most members are struggling to see any silver lining in the proposed budget,” said one member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. “President Trump will have set the record for the largest increases in federal spending in the history of our country, surpassing George W. Bush’s Republican record.”

Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), another Freedom Caucus member, characterized himself as “really not thrilled” with the deal, adding that he is likely to vote against it.

“I don’t see the prohibition on Planned Parenthood funding in there. I don’t know that ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and our border issues are adequately funded. My default position in that case, since you’re going to be adding a whole bunch of money to the deficit and the national debt, would be to vote ‘no,’ ” Biggs said in an interview with The Hill.

A spokesman for the Freedom Caucus announced on Tuesday night that the group would formally oppose the budget deal.

The House can pass the budget deal without votes from Freedom Caucus members, if most Democrats and other Republicans vote for it, but lawmakers in the conservative group often have the ear of Trump and could try to persuade him not to sign it.

In December, conservative lawmakers and commentators convinced Trump to not sign a Senate-passed stopgap spending bill, which paved the way for a 35-day partial government shutdown.

GOP “no” votes are also lining up in the Senate, including Sens. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonSurveillance fight emerges as intelligence flashpoint Congress eyes killing controversial surveillance program Whistleblower retaliation: Stop confusing unlawful attacks with politics MORE (Wis.), Mike BraunMichael BraunTop Trump advisers discuss GOP need to act on health care at retreat with senators Overnight Health Care: Ernst endorses bipartisan bill to lower drug prices | US partnering with drugmakers on coronavirus vaccine | UN chief says virus poses 'enormous' risks Senators, bruised by impeachment, hunt for deals MORE (Ind.) and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeThe Hill's Campaign Report: Sanders top target at CPAC Trump upends controversial surveillance fight Former impeachment managers clash over surveillance bill MORE (Utah), while others are calling for a return to the negotiating table.

“We should work to restore fiscal sanity, rather than perpetuating Democrats’ big government programs. I urge administration negotiators to go back to the bargaining table and fight for the president’s priorities,” Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzThe Hill's Campaign Report: Sanders top target at CPAC Bloomberg campaign manager says they have considered naming running mate during primaries The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump on US coronavirus risks: 'We're very, very ready for this' MORE (R-Texas) said in a statement.

Johnson said he was “highly disappointed” and was an adamant “no” vote against the budget deal.

“Highly disappointed that as part of that deal we don’t have a structural reform. That’s what I’ve always asked for,” he said. “I told the leader that a couple weeks ago. I said, ‘If you want me to support any kind of increase in the debt ceiling, we need a structural reform.’ ”

Some GOP senators predicted that “several” of their colleagues had concerns or would ultimately vote against the agreement. They characterized themselves as weighing how to vote or wanting to see more details, suggesting GOP opposition could increase.

“I’m not convinced on the deal yet and I think there are a number of folks who aren’t convinced yet,” said Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.).

Asked what Mnuchin’s message was to Republicans during the closed-door lunch, Kennedy characterized it as “yippy yippy yay, I made a deal” and that the GOP meeting was a “rah-rah session.”

When acting Office of Management and Budget Director Russell Vought was asked on Fox News on Tuesday what he would say to lawmakers who may vote against the deal, he  noted that Trump has proposed spending cuts in the past and that the budget deal prevents there from being any new riders in appropriations bills.

“There will be no new legislative riders to stop this president’s agenda on deregulatory initiatives or building the wall,” he said.

When asked about the concerns from deficit hawks, Mnuchin painted the agreement as a product of compromises from both sides. 

“We needed a debt ceiling increase,” he told reporters. “And again we couldn’t get a deal without having bipartisan support.” 

But some conservative lawmakers indicated that it would be hard for them to be persuaded by the White House.

“I think the president sees it as bill with no poison pills, but a spending level that puts the country on a path to bankruptcy is a poison pill,” Rep. Warren DavidsonWarren Earl DavidsonOvernight Defense: House passes bills to rein in Trump on Iran | Pentagon seeks Iraq's permission to deploy missile defenses | Roberts refuses to read Paul question on whistleblower during impeachment trial Here are the lawmakers who defected on Iran legislation House votes to rein in Trump's military authority MORE (R-Ohio), a Freedom Caucus member, told The Hill. “It’s not compassionate to bankrupt the country.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyCongress eyes billion to billion to combat coronavirus Lawmakers race to pass emergency coronavirus funding Warren introduces bill to redirect wall money to coronavirus MORE (R-Calif.) and Minority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseSanders, socialism emerge as top targets at CPAC The Hill's Campaign Report: Sanders top target at CPAC House passes historic legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime MORE (R-La.) are backing the deal, and Scalise’s office said he would be whipping GOP members in favor of the bill.

One member of House GOP leadership, Rep. Mark WalkerBradley (Mark) Mark WalkerRepublicans root for Sanders nomination in battle for House Top GOP super PAC spent money on NC Democrat House passes bipartisan bill to create women's history museum MORE (N.C.), spoke out against the agreement.

“I’m proud to serve in leadership and will continue to advocate for things that are good for our body, our conference, but also I have to do due diligence in speaking out where I feel like we overshot the fiscal runway, and I think that’s what we’re doing in this particular time frame,” Walker told The Hill on Tuesday. 

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But upon leaving a GOP leadership meeting Tuesday evening, Walker appeared to soften his opposition by telling reporters “we’re still learning and listening.” He also didn’t rule out the possibility of ultimately voting in favor of the measure.

McCarthy told reporters he is “100 percent” confident Trump wouldn’t backtrack on the deal. He added that “I think we’ll have the votes.”

While most Democrats are expected to vote for the deal, some have voiced concerns about increases in defense spending.

“I am pleased that the budget deal lifts the debt ceiling and moves us past the austerity of the Budget Control Act,” Rep. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaKhanna introduces bill to add a third gender option on US passports Omar endorses progressive Georgia Democrat running for House seat Democrats call for Twitter, Facebook to take down Pelosi video posted by Trump MORE (D-Calif.), a Congressional Progressive Caucus leader who is undecided on the budget deal, said in a statement. “That said, I remain concerned that defense spending has increased $100 billion since President Trump took office and now represents nearly 60% of discretionary federal spending.” 

Khanna also expressed concerns that Democrats are losing their leverage “by agreeing to a lifting of the debt ceiling for the remainder of this term but then in turn handcuffing a future progressive President in 2021.”

Scott Wong and Juliegrace Brufke contributed.