Why Paul Ryan's Budget Deal Could Go Down in Flames
Policy + Politics

Why Paul Ryan's Budget Deal Could Go Down in Flames

© Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

One week after the Republican-controlled Congress broke with over 40 years of tradition by denying the White House budget director a chance to explain the administration’s annual budget request, the GOP is coming precariously close to not being able to come up with its own spending blueprint.

A group of hardcore House conservatives has seized on two recent developments – the U.S. national debt reaching a record $19 trillion and a Congressional Budget Office report that the deficit will spike in 2016 for the first time in seven years – to demand $30 billion in spending cuts before a vote can happen on a budget resolution whose topline numbers were determined by congressional leaders late last year.

Related: Tea Party Revolts Against Obama’s Budget as Debt Exceeds $19 Trillion

“We need to write a budget that reflects the environment we’re in,” House Freedom Caucus chair Jim Jordan (R-OH) said Thursday during a Capitol Hill press conference, specifically citing the debt figure and the CBO report. “To me, that’s what drives it.”

“We’re still pretty firm on the number,” said Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID).

The conflict has been brewing since last September, when former House Speaker John Boehner (OH) helped forge a two-year deal that lifted looming budgets caps by raising discretionary spending by $50 billion in fiscal 2016 and $30 billion in 2017.

The agreement was the final achievement for Boehner, who was driven out of office by his increasingly public brawls with the Freedom Caucus, and conservatives gave his successor Paul Ryan (WI) a pass as he worked to pass the deal. However, 179 House Republicans voted against the deal, a clear sign of deep-rooted conservative anger.

Related: As National Debt Hits $19 Trillion, a Spending Showdown Looms in Congress

Now Ryan -- a former House Budget Committee chair who has spent months promising that Republicans will no longer just be the party of “no” and give the American public a clear contrast with Democrats in a presidential election year -- faces a fork in the road that could open him up to the same criticisms that hounded Boehner into retirement and prompt new complaints from the minority that the GOP can’t govern.

Congressional budget resolutions don’t become law but they do serve as a fiscal roadmap that lays out in detail the majority party’s spending priorities for the year. If Ryan can’t quiet his right flank, he could be forced to ditch the budget process all together and skip straight to drafting the 12 annual appropriations bills that fund the federal government.

Such a move would violate his promises to return the chamber to “regular order” and take up the spending bills individually.

That route could also be problematic for conservatives because without the budget blueprint to guide appropriators there is less incentive to write the 12 separate spending bills, thereby greatly increasing the chances of a free-spending, catch-all omnibus bill to keep the government’s doors open.

Related: Four Trillion Reasons to Throw the Bums Out

Meanwhile, mainstream Republican might revolt if Ryan buckles under conservative demands and reneges on the budget agreement. He also would face new opposition from defense hawks, who already want to see the topline number increased by over $20 billion.

Freedom Caucus members argue the choice is simple: a smaller budget is in line with conservative values and therefore meets Ryan’s goal of contrasting with the Democrats.

Labrador said billionaire Donald Trump won the New Hampshire primary in a landslide earlier this week because “the American people don’t trust the Republican Party to do the things we promised to do.”

“We are $19 trillion in debt and we’ve got a whole town that wants to ignore that,” said Tea Party Caucus chair Tim Huelskamp (R-KS). “We’re talking about $30 billion.” ***

Rep. David Brat (R-VA), who dubbed the two-year deal a “crap sandwich,” said he could support higher spending if Ryan made commitments “in writing” to find savings quickly on other issues the Wisconsin lawmaker has highlighted, like welfare reform.

Jordan rejected the idea that just because the two-year budget deal set the topline numbers, lawmakers must adhere to it.

He noted that the budget panel passed a blueprint last year only to see it grow on the chamber floor after defense hawks won more money for the Pentagon and grew again in the final bargain after leaders promised Democrats to match every new dollar in defense with one on the domestic side.

“The logic that we have to follow that number … We have never done that. Are you kidding me?!” he asked.

Tensions could come to a head on Friday when Ryan, who has spent the last few weeks casually meeting with members, reveals the path forward to the entire House GOP Conference.

If Republicans and Democrats can’t find a way to trim $30 billion from a $4 trillion budget, “then none of us deserve to be here as members of Congress,” said Labrador.

“We should hang our heads in shame.”

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