GOP’s competing priorities exposed in budget brawl

 

Republicans have long liked to say that they’re hawkish on both defending the nation and balancing budgets.
 
That sentiment has faced its biggest test in years over the last couple of weeks, as GOP lawmakers sparred over a comparatively small sliver of war funding in congressional budget debates.
 
In the end, both the House and the Senate passed fiscal frameworks that poured tens of billions of extra dollars into a fund for overseas combat operations, over the objections of budget hawks who wanted spending cuts to offset at least some of those increases.
 

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But even though Republicans got their budgets passed, GOP officials on both sides of the rift say the divide won’t be going away any time soon, as party lawmakers grapple with how to keep spending down at a time of increasing global unrest.
 
“These fights are going to keep happening,” said Rep. Morgan GriffithHoward (Morgan) Morgan GriffithOvernight Energy: Senate Dems introduce Green New Deal alternative | Six Republicans named to House climate panel | Wheeler confirmed to lead EPA Six Republicans named to House climate panel House passes bill expressing support for NATO MORE (R-Va.), who sought to offset the more robust defense spending before eventually backing the House budget.
 
The budget debate over defense spending even offered a potential preview of the 2016 presidential campaign, with potential hopefuls Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by MAPRx — Trump jumps into 2020 race The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by MAPRx — Trump jumps into 2020 race GOP frets about Trump's poll numbers MORE (R-Fla.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSecond ex-Senate staffer charged in aiding doxxing of GOP senators Second ex-Senate staffer charged in aiding doxxing of GOP senators Meghan McCain clashes with Joy Behar as the 'sacrificial Republican' on 'The View' MORE (R-S.C.) making strong pushes to augment defense spending.
 
Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGOP frets about Trump's poll numbers GOP frets about Trump's poll numbers GOP senator introduces bill to hold online platforms liable for political bias MORE (R-Texas), who announced his campaign for the White House last week, sided with Rubio on a proposal to add billions more to defense funding, while Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSenate to vote Thursday to block Trump's Saudi arms deal Senate to vote Thursday to block Trump's Saudi arms deal Overnight Defense: Shanahan exit shocks Washington | Pentagon left rudderless | Lawmakers want answers on Mideast troop deployment | Senate could vote on Saudi arms deal this week | Pompeo says Trump doesn't want war with Iran MORE (R-Ky.), expected to announce in April, got limited support for his plan to offset a boost in defense spending with cuts elsewhere.
 
The splits that came to the forefront over the last two weeks were driven at least in part by the 2011 agreement to raise the debt ceiling, which imposed ceilings on both defense and nondefense spending.
 
Rep. Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanTrump says Democrats are handing out subpoenas 'like they're cookies' The unexpected shadow of 1994, 25 years later Addressing climate change is a win for Republicans — why not embrace it? MORE (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayOvernight Health Care: Trump officials defend changes to family planning program | Senators unveil bipartisan package on health costs | Democrats pass T spending bill with HHS funds Overnight Health Care: Trump officials defend changes to family planning program | Senators unveil bipartisan package on health costs | Democrats pass T spending bill with HHS funds Chris Murphy may oppose bipartisan health bill unless it addresses ObamaCare 'sabotage' MORE (D-Wash.), then Budget Committee chairmen, reached a deal in December 2013 to ease so-called sequestration for two years, which effectively delayed this year’s fights.
 
But both of the current Budget chairmen, Sen. Mike EnziMichael (Mike) Bradley EnziBeware of the 'unknown knowns' of budget reform The Hill's Morning Report - Trump, Biden go toe-to-toe in Iowa The Hill's Morning Report - Trump, Biden go toe-to-toe in Iowa MORE (R-Wyo.) and Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), were forced to adhere to the $523 billion defense spending cap for 2016, leading Republicans to rely on the war fund to appease the concerns of national security hawks.
 
Senior Republicans in both chambers said that their ability to pass a budget proved they could bridge the gaps between the two factions, in a week when House GOP leaders also scored a major bipartisan deal to repeal Medicare’s so-called “doc fix.”
 
“We worked hard for weeks to bring fiscal and defense hawks together. A lot of people thought it couldn’t get done,” said House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), who had unsuccessfully sought to bolster defense spending when the Budget Committee first considered Price’s budget last week.
 
House leaders eventually moved to increase war funding on the floor, essentially allowing the rank and file to choose to remove a requirement to offset $20 billion of war funding — the major sticking point between fiscal and defense hawks over a $3.8 trillion budget for 2016.
 
Scalise maintained Wednesday that Republicans’ ability to get that problem solved and pass a budget for a fifth straight year proved that supporting national defense and fiscal restraint are “not mutually exclusive.”
 
But budget analysts insist that the caps will continue to make it difficult to ease the tensions between the two factions, especially with Republican opposition to tax increases and Democratic resistance to entitlement reforms standing in the way of a broader fiscal deal.
 
Defense hawks point to the recent flare-ups in Yemen and throughout the Middle East as they make their case for higher defense spending. They also insist that the Budget Control Act’s caps unfairly take half of their cuts from defense, which accounts for roughly 18 percent of federal spending, even if they appreciate the law’s goal of keeping federal spending in check.
 
A bipartisan group of senators has discussed ways to increase spending beyond the caps, with Graham floating the idea of a “mini Simpson-Bowles” plan. Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteKey endorsements: A who's who in early states Key endorsements: A who's who in early states Sinema, Gallagher fastest lawmakers in charity race MORE (R-N.H.) said on Thursday that “we have to come up with obviously a way to have alternative savings” to bust the defense caps.
 
Other lawmakers, like Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), have suggested that the past week’s budget votes would lead to a sequel to the Ryan-Murray talks that led to a narrow two-year solution to sequestration.
 
“I think we have people that are overemphasizing the differences,” Cole said about the budget debate. “But at the end of the day, this is always going to be a strong on defense party. And so, that’s created some challenges.”
 
For their part, fiscal hawks say they believe proper defense spending is vital. But they add that lawmakers should be able to find savings elsewhere in the budget to offset any increases, and that the Pentagon needs to do a better job of cleaning up its own waste.
 
Rep. Mo BrooksMorris (Mo) Jackson Brooks58 GOP lawmakers vote against disaster aid bill GOP candidate expects Roy Moore to announce Senate bid in June GOP leaders dead set against Roy Moore in Alabama MORE (R-Ala.), who ended up voting for the budget with higher defense spending, said his desire to offset increased defense spending would likely lead him to vote against appropriations bills that he believes are too generous.
 
“There is always tension when you’ve got competing values. And we did our best to reach an equilibrium point, and now we’re moving on,” Brooks said.
 
But Bill Hoagland of the Bipartisan Policy Center said comments like those show why defense hawks are better positioned right now than the fiscal hawks, a potential problem for GOP leaders down the line.
 
President Obama and Republican leaders on national security are both seeking higher spending on defense. The president has said he’ll block any spending bills that stick to the 2011 caps, which he now says are too strict. That would make it even more difficult for the GOP’s budget hardliners to find a way to offset defense increases.
 
Hoagland, a former senior GOP aide at the Senate Budget Committee, added that the new dust-up between the budget and fiscal hawks underscored once more the challenges that Washington faces in seeing through efforts to cut spending. Even before this year’s debate, House GOP leaders were forced to pull a transportation appropriations bill from the floor in 2013.
 
“It’s always easy for budgeteers to put in caps,” Hoagland said. “That’s the easy part.”