House and Senate drafting separate budget plans

Republicans in the House and Senate plan to release separate budget blueprints this month, creating the potential for conflict as they head into a new fiscal battle with President Obama.

While there had been speculation after their midterm triumph that Republicans might release a joint budget resolution, Budget Committee chairmen Sen. Mike Enzi (Wyo.) and Rep. Tom Price (Ga.) are instead moving forward with separate plans.

Both Budget panels plan to mark up blueprints the week of March 16, with a goal of moving them to floor votes by the last full week of March.

{mosads}Congress is scheduled to leave town for a two-week Easter and Passover recess at the beginning of April, and lawmakers must complete action on their budget resolutions by April 15.

Details about what will be in the budget plans are scarce, but Republicans have stressed the need to cut the deficit and bring the budget “within balance,” which will require steep cuts to domestic programs and potentially changes to Social Security and Medicare.

Budget votes have traditionally been difficult for both parties, and there is a new dynamic at play this year, with Republicans controlling Congress and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) no longer leading the fiscal charge.

Price met Wednesday with the House Republican Policy Committee, an arm of leadership, to discuss the budget process and balancing the budget as soon as possible.

Policy Committee Chairman Luke Messer (R-Ind.) told The Hill the House budget resolution would have to cater to a wide range of the conference in order to pass.

“I’ve supported [Republican Study Committee] budgets in the past that would balance in a far shorter time,” than 10 years, Messer said. “The trick is, we’ve got to get a budget to get 218 Republican votes, because it’s unlikely there will be a lot of Democrats helping.”

Passing a budget resolution will be a major test for Republican leaders in both chambers.

In the recent years, conservatives complained that Ryan’s budget blueprints did not balance fast enough, forcing GOP leaders to expend time and energy getting them over the finish line. Last year’s budget passed the House by the tight margin of 219-205.

Freshman Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), a member of the Budget Committee, told The Hill that this year’s budget will balance in “less than 10” years, but couldn’t provide a specific window.

A proposal with a shorter time frame could provoke a difficult debate among Republicans about how deeply to cut into federal spending.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a House Budget Committee member and appropriator, said he’s voted for previous budgets that have balanced in less than 10 years, but added that he recognizes “the politics of that are problematic.”

In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is seeking to pass a budget resolution while protecting a slew of vulnerable incumbents who are up for reelection in states that favor Democrats.

The upper chamber’s budget process will require senators taking dozens of votes on changes to the budget over the course of several days, a process dubbed a “vote-o-rama.”

Democrats will use the procedure to try to force Republicans into politically damaging votes, just as Republicans did in 2013 when Democrats passed a budget resolution for the first time in four years.

Even if both chambers manage to pass a budget resolution, they will have to reconcile their differences in a conference committee, where tensions between House and Senate Republicans could again come to the fore.

House and Senate Republicans started the year with a joint retreat in Hershey, Pa., aimed at fostering unity. But they soon found themselves at odds in the fight over funding for the Department of Homeland Security, with harsh criticism lobbed in both directions.

“I hoped we learned some lessons,” Cole said. “Any football team loses a game every now and then, and then you’ve got to figure out how to do it better.”

Despite his conference’s disagreements, Cole predicts House Republicans will approve their resolution. 

“I would think we can. We’ve been able to do it four years in a row.”

GOP lawmakers involved in the budget discussions declined to say whether their initial resolutions would contain reconciliation instructions, which some have said could be used to reverse parts of ObamaCare or pass tax reform.

The budget blueprints do not have to be signed by the president but would set guidelines for appropriators who decide how much funding to provide for government agencies and programs.

Should Obama threaten to veto the GOP appropriations bills, it could plunge Washington into a new government shutdown fight this fall.

Messer predicted the House and Senate would get on the same page long before then.

“I don’t know if it’s ever easy, but it’s essential,” he said. “We’re going to have to find our way through it. I’m eternally optimistic. I believe we’ll come together as a team and get it done. It’s important that we do.”

Tags Mike Enzi Mitch McConnell Paul Ryan

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