Political pragmatism appears to have once again trumped ideological fervor as the Republicans put the finishing touches on their budget plan for fiscal 2016.
The new budget blueprint originally was conceived as a first major step towards wiping out the deficit within the coming decade through a series of draconian spending cuts and changes in Medicare, Medicaid and other costly entitlement programs. But for now, at least, Congress is on track to approving substantially more spending in the coming year.
In fact, the GOP budget calls for a total of roughly $3.8 trillion in overall discretionary and mandatory spending next year, close to the $3.99 trillion of overall outlays proposed by Obama in February.
GOP leaders made good on their vow to draft new budget rules that would grease to the skids for passage of legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act. But even if the Republicans finally succeed in sending such legislation to the White House, President Obama has promised to veto it – and there’s no way the Republicans could override his veto.
As for the GOP’s promise of spending constraints, the budget that emerged late Monday from week-long negotiations by House and Senate GOP and Democratic leaders includes nearly $40 billion more for defense spending in the coming year while temporarily preserving strict caps on domestic spending, according to media reports.
Gone are the earlier proposals for privatizing Medicare for seniors to save money and using special budget instructions known as reconciliation to specifically target food stamps, Pell Grants and an array of other politically –sensitive domestic programs for major savings.
Moreover, GOP leaders rejected a conservative GOP demand that much of the increased spending for defense be offset by cuts in other programs. Instead, the tens of billions of dollars of additional defense spending above caps imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act will simply be added to the deficit.
In short, the GOP leadership gutted the heart of the conservative balanced-budget, anti-tax, anti-Obamacare manifestos that were crafted by Senate Budget Committee Chair Mike Enzi (R-WY) and House Budget Committee Chair Tom Price (R-GA) and their members.
With the 2016 presidential and congressional campaigns beginning to heat up, House and Senate GOP leaders are wary of unnecessarily providing the White House and Democrats with ammunition to use against them. Already, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), the ranking members of the Senate and House Budget Committees, have denounced the GOP budget an assault on the poor and middle class and a boon to wealthy Americans and businesses.
The GOP plan as it now stands strongly resembles the spending policies of former Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI), with the notable exception of the elimination of Ryan’s plan to convert Medicare into a voucher-like program for retirees who join the federal health care program beginning in 2024.
Bedrock conservative House members complained last week at a Heritage Foundation event that GOP leaders were failing to deliver on 2014 campaign promises to balance the budget, block President Obama’s immigration initiatives and fulfill other promises from the conservative agenda.
“I think the American people get it,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KAN). “They know the difference between trying and failing and not trying at all, and they’re tired about folks up here not trying at all.”
Meanwhile, Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a non-partisan spending watchdog group, told Politico that “political irresponsibility beat out” fiscal responsibility.
The Republican-controlled Congress will move swiftly this week to pass the compromise bill in order to allow the House and Senate Appropriations Committees to begin work in earnest on a dozen annual spending bills for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
However, just about nobody seriously believes the new budget blueprint is anything but a political document trumpeting the Republicans’ fiscal policy aspirations. There is growing indication that the Republicans ultimately will have little choice but to cut a deal with the White House and Democratic leaders that would provide for more spending for domestic programs as well as a boost in the Pentagon’s budget.
The GOP budget as currently crafted is laced with a number of budget gimmicks, including one that would enable Congress to circumvent the $523 billion defense spending cap for the coming year by funneling $38 billion more in general operating fund to the Defense Department through a special account meant primarily for funding the war effort in Afghanistan and Iraq.
President Obama, however, is opposed to bolstering spending by the Defense Department without providing additional funding for domestic programs.
House Appropriations Committee Chair Harold Rogers (R-KY) recently told reporters he planned to begin marking up fiscal 2016 spending bills, based on the statutory spending caps. At the same time, he strongly signaled growing support among his committee for a bipartisan budget deal similar to the one negotiated by Ryan and former Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty in late 2013 that would satisfy the competing factions over spending.
Shaun Donovan, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, left little doubt on Tuesday that Obama will veto appropriations bills with more for defense but not domestic programs in the coming months.
"The president has been very clear. He's drawn two red lines," Donovan said during a Bloomberg television interview. "He is not going to accept a budget that puts sequestration in place that locks it in, and he's not going to accept a bill that fixes defense without bills that also fix the non-defense part of the budget."
Donovan said Republicans would be well advised to begin talking with Democrats about a deal similar to the Ryan-Murray compromise.
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