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Republicans walking tightrope ahead of budget resolution vote

Republicans walking tightrope ahead of budget resolution vote
© Greg Nash

Senate Republicans have little room for error as they push forward with a budget resolution that is key to tax reform.

They scored a small victory on Tuesday, when 50 senators agreed to start debate on the fiscal blueprint despite GOP Sens. Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranThe Hill's Morning Report — Kavanaugh ordeal thrusts FBI into new political jam GOP Senate candidate to African Americans: Stop begging for 'government scraps' Trump endorses Hyde-Smith in Mississippi Senate race MORE (Miss.) and Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyDisasters become big chunk of U.S. deficit Lawmakers, Wall Street shrug off Trump's escalating Fed attacks Florida politics play into disaster relief debate MORE (Ala.) missing the vote.

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After the initial vote, Cochran announced he had returned to Washington and would be “taking part in the debate on the budget and tax cuts,” giving Republicans more breathing room.

But GOP leadership is still facing demands from key holdouts, giving them a narrow path to get the budget through the Senate this week. With a 52-seat majority, Republicans can only afford to lose two GOP senators and still let Vice President Pence break a tie.

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulPaul to Saudi government: 'It takes a lot of damn gall' to lecture US Congress raises pressure on Saudi Arabia The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump says he is cutting foreign aid over caravan | Lawmakers point fingers at Saudi crown prince | DNC chair downplays 'blue wave' talk MORE (R-Ky.) is threatening to vote against the budget if spending levels are not scaled back and is blasting demands from Republican defense hawks to boost military spending.

“Senators [John] McCain and [Lindsey] Graham are torpedoing the budget by insisting on busting the budget caps for more spending,” Paul said in a tweet on Tuesday.

Paul said during a conference call with reporters that he is asking leadership to stick to the budget caps. He said boosting defense spending through the overseas contingency fund — a war account that isn’t subjected to the rules — is a “charade.”

“I’ve told my leadership, I’ve told the president ... and I said look, I’m all in, I want to be supportive, I’m a yes vote, but we have to obey our own rules,” he said.

The budgetary caps imposed in the 2011 Budget Control Act were intended to force cooperation between Republicans and Democrats by strictly limiting both defense and nondefense discretionary spending.

Paul said the $43 billion in contingency funding should be removed from the budget, arguing it violates the spirit of that agreement.

The Kentucky senator voted to start debate on the budget, but he said that was largely “out of respect for the president.” He has been locked in negotiations with the White House over the resolution.

Graham (R-S.C.) and McCain (R-Ariz.) fired back at Paul.

“Rand’s wanting everything. ... I don’t know how long it takes to figure out where this guy is coming from. ... He’s never getting to yes. He’s always got a reason to be no,” Graham said.

Graham in a tweet warned Paul that he better not “screw up” tax reform.

McCain, who once called Paul a “wacko bird,” dismissed the Republican as speaking only for himself.

“I don’t know anybody who pays any attention to him,” McCain said. Paul himself was unable to name another senator who was prepared to vote against the budget over the same issues.

McCain announced on Tuesday evening that he would support the budget because it sets up tax reform, but he urged the White House and Congress to get a larger deal to boost defense spending.

“At the end of the day, we all know that the Senate budget resolution will not impact final appropriations. To do that, Congress and the White House must negotiate a budget agreement that will lift the caps on defense spending and enable us to adequately fund the military,” McCain said in a statement.

Republicans are optimistic they will ultimately pass the budget because their members want to move on to tax reform. The budget will allow Republicans to pass a tax bill through the Senate on a majority vote.

“I think people understand that it’s more about tax reform than the budget, and it’s a necessary step so we can move to tax reform,” said Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.).

Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynManchin wrestles with progressive backlash in West Virginia O'Rourke's rise raises hopes for Texas Dems down ballot Five takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke debate showdown MORE (R-Texas) added, “No one should be confused about this: that a vote for the budget is a vote for tax reform. Conversely, a vote against the budget is a vote against tax reform.”

Tuesday’s vote kicked off 50 hours of debate followed by a marathon voting session, known as a vote-a-rama.

Under the freewheeling process, senators can force a vote on any proposal they want.

A vote on the budget in 2015 wrapped up after 3 a.m. despite pleas from leadership to speed things up. Voting on the fiscal 2017 budget in January, which was used to let ObamaCare repeal avoid a Democratic filibuster, lasted until after 1 a.m.

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerManchin wrestles with progressive backlash in West Virginia The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Health care a top policy message in fall campaigns McConnell says deficits 'not a Republican problem' MORE (D-N.Y.) suggested that their efforts in the budget debate would largely be focused on messaging against the GOP tax bill, instead of a free-for-all.

“We’d like to focus our amendments … and not have a whole Christmas tree of everything,” Schumer said when asked about the party’s floor strategy.

The amendments, according to Schumer, would largely fall into four buckets: that the GOP tax plan would create a “huge hole” in the deficit; that the tax plan would hurt the middle class; that it would cut Medicare and Medicaid; and that it would provide tax cuts to high-income earners.

“Rest assured, Democrats will use the process to put our Republican colleagues on the spot here. How can they support such a plan?” he asked.

Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerDems can use subpoena power to reclaim the mantle of populism Is there a difference between good and bad online election targeting? Collusion judgment looms for key Senate panel MORE (D-Va.) said he would file an amendment to keep Senate pay-as-you-go rules in place for tax reform. Republicans need to bend those rules, which are meant to limit deficit spending, to ensure that Democrats don’t block their tax reform efforts.

“Pay-go is one of the ones that, for anyone who claims to have any fiscal responsibility, we’ve got to keep those rules in place,” Warner said.

Senate Democrats are also planning to offer an amendment to block the GOP from using the budget process to more easily allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

But Democrats, echoing Schumer, predicted they would keep their amendments focused on the tax debate.

“The point we want to make is not terribly complicated. ... I’m not sure this will be amongst the longer vote-a-ramas in the history of the Senate,” said Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyGOP lawmaker demands ‘immediate recall’ of acting US ambassador to Saudi Arabia Dem senator calls for US action after 'preposterous' Saudi explanation Saudi mystery drives wedge between Trump, GOP MORE (D-Conn.).

Added Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownOn The Money: Deficit hits six-year high of 9 billion | Yellen says Trump attacks threaten Fed | Affordable housing set for spotlight in 2020 race Lawmakers, Wall Street shrug off Trump's escalating Fed attacks The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by PhRMA — Dem victories in `18 will not calm party turbulence MORE (D-Ohio): “It’s not going to be a zillion amendments.”