Inside the GOP’s budget drama

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) had wanted to avoid any embarrassing snafus when the new GOP budget hit the floor.

Instead, he found trouble a week early.

Scalise and GOP leaders found themselves on their heels late Wednesday evening, after Budget Chairman Tom Price’s (R-Ga.) first budget markup screeched to a sudden and unexpected halt.

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Lawmakers filed out of the hearing room, going behind closed doors to talk over a provision that would allow more defense spending to add to the deficit.

Scalise and his chief deputy, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), had canvassed Budget Committee Republicans and thought the provision would help win over defense hawks, securing enough votes for the budget to clear both the panel and the full House next week.

Price, meanwhile, had been insisting that there wasn’t enough GOP support to pass the amendment eventually offered by Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.).

As it turned out, the amendment failed despite the intervention of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who wasn’t able to sway a handful of skeptical deficit hawks.

The late-night drama raised more questions about the vote-counting skills of Scalise — who this time had trouble not with the 218 votes needed to get a bill through the House, but the 19 needed to ensure the budget passed through committee.

“Look, budgets are always a little bit difficult,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a leadership ally.

In the end, GOP leaders found a way around their budget problems, at least for now.

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The solution: Passing the budget out of committee with the requirement that roughly $20 billion of spending from a war fund be offset. That happened Thursday, in a 22-13 vote, setting up floor action on the budget next week.

Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerFrom learning on his feet to policy director Is Congress retrievable? Boehner reveals portrait done by George W. Bush MORE (R-Ohio) later said that the House Rules Committee would increase the so-called overseas contingency operations (OCO) fund to $96 billion, and take away any need for offsets. 

House Armed Services Committee members, who had threatened to submarine the budget if the offsets weren’t scrapped, said that would allow them to back the plan in a floor vote.

In a statement Thursday, Scalise suggested that Wednesday’s rough patch would allow Republicans to avoid a more damaging blow-up on the House floor.

“It’s important that we were able to come to an agreement that unites the defense and fiscal hawks,” Scalise said. “This agreement puts the House in a strong position to pass a unified budget next week.”

Part of the problem that Price and GOP leaders faced was that the Budget Committee is stocked with Republicans who have no qualms about breaking with their leadership.

Three of the five Republicans on the Budget Committee who opposed BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerFrom learning on his feet to policy director Is Congress retrievable? Boehner reveals portrait done by George W. Bush MORE for Speaker in January — Reps. Dave Brat (Va.), Scott GarrettErnest (Scott) Scott GarrettBiz groups take victory lap on Ex-Im Bank Export-Import Bank back to full strength after Senate confirmations Manufacturers support Reed to helm Ex-Im Bank MORE (N.J.) and Gary Palmer (Ala.) — couldn’t be persuaded on Wednesday to back the Rokita amendment, according to a defense industry official with knowledge of the GOP lobbying efforts.

A fourth Republican, Rep. Tom McClintock (Calif.), also opposed the amendment.

Price declined to play an active role in switching any of the no votes, said the defense industry official. Other sources also said the Budget chairman showed little interest in helping the Rokita amendment pass. That left the heavy lifting on Wednesday night to McCarthy. 

“This is a process that happens a lot, as we move through with people with passionate views,” Price said Thursday, while declining to weigh in on Scalise’s decision to go directly to Budget Committee members.

Garrett wouldn’t discuss McCarthy’s lobbying efforts either, but made it clear that he preferred keeping the offsets in the budget.

“Everybody on the committee, as evidenced by their vote, wanted to make sure that we adequately funded defense on one hand, but also made sure appropriate offsets were done,” he told The Hill. 

Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.), a Budget Committee member who also opposed Boehner, called out GOP leaders, insisting they were trying to push through a major change with little debate.

“Chairman Price, who I think has done a fantastic job through all this, was put in a very awkward spot,” Stutzman said. “And that’s not fair to him.”

The Indiana Republican, who said that leadership lied to him last year to secure his vote for a spending bill, added that he had tried to be clear to GOP whips that he wasn’t a fan of the proposal to get rid of the offsets for defense funding.

“Somewhere that was lost in translation,” Stutzman said, even as he maintained he’d be able to back the expected change in the Rules Committee.

That compromise gives GOP leaders a better shot at avoiding the sort of defeat they’ve repeatedly suffered this year, including just weeks ago when the rank and file failed to coalesce behind a three-week extension of Homeland Security funding. Earlier this year, GOP leaders had to pull proposals dealing with abortion and education policy from the House floor.

Failing to pass a budget would have been the lowest point yet.

“I think not being able to pass a Republican budget on the floor would be the granddaddy of them all,” said Rep. Matt SalmonMatthew (Matt) James SalmonArizona voters like Kyl but few think he'll stick around Former Sen. Jon Kyl to replace McCain in Senate Arizona governor faces pressure over McCain replacement MORE (R-Ariz.).

The topsy-turvy path the GOP budget took to the House floor underscores the challenges that Republican leaders face in keeping the peace among a conference divided in several ways.

The divisions between fiscal and defense hawks, for instance, centered on the roughly $20 billion worth of OCO funds that would have needed offsets — which amounts to well under 1 percent of the $3.8 trillion budget for 2016, and just a fraction of the more than $600 billion House Republicans have proposed to spend on defense.

And as House Rules Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) acknowledged Thursday, there’s plenty of time for the Republicans to get themselves back into trouble.

“We’re trying to work with our members to make sure that they fully understand the ramifications of the direction that we go,” said Sessions, the next chairman in the budget spotlight. “And that is a stark difference, I believe, from the past when we did not effectively make sure all the members understood the options and the ramifications."

- Martin Matishak, Peter Schroeder and Kristina Wong contributed.