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 Trump 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.

{mosads}“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 Thune (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 McConnell (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 Mnuchin, 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 Johnson (Wis.), Mike Braun (Ind.) and Mike Lee (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 Cruz (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 Kennedy (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 Davidson (R-Ohio), a Freedom Caucus member, told The Hill. “It’s not compassionate to bankrupt the country.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Minority Whip Steve Scalise (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 Walker (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. 

{mossecondads}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 Khanna (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.

Tags Donald Trump Government shutdown John Kennedy John Thune Kevin McCarthy Mark Walker Mike Braun Mike Lee Mitch McConnell Ro Khanna Ron Johnson Steve Scalise Steven Mnuchin Ted Cruz Warren Davidson

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