GOP Balanced Budget Moves Forward as Rifts Remain
Policy + Politics

GOP Balanced Budget Moves Forward as Rifts Remain

A long late night of budget feuding and political gamesmanship is now behind House Republicans – though rifts remain. 

The House Budget Committee on Thursday approved a GOP balanced budget plan that calls for $5.5 trillion of spending cuts and savings over the coming decade. The agreement results from sidestepping a contentious dispute between defense hawks who want to shatter the Pentagon’s spending caps and fiscal conservatives concerned about the deficit and government waste. 

Related: House and Senate Duke It Out Over Defense Spending 

The committee voted 22 to 13 along strict party lines to approve the Republicans’ austere long-term budget plan. It relies exclusively on reductions in entitlements and domestic programs, including Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps, to wipe out the deficit by 2025. 

While the Republicans cleared an important hurdle, they did so by promising to sweeten defense spending even more before the bill reaches the House floor next week. There is no guarantee of what will happen then, especially if many fiscal conservatives withhold support because of the potential for significantly adding to the deficit. 

Over in the Senate, meanwhile, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is leading an effort to breach the spending caps on defense in a direct challenge to the budget plan of Chairman Mike Enzi (R-WY).  The four Republican senators considering a bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016 – Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas, and Marco Rubio of Florida along with Graham – are sharply divided over defense spending. 

Cruz and Paul oppose the new budget out of concern about mushrooming defense spending, according to Politico, while Graham and Rubio would likely oppose the budget unless more defense spending is added. The $523 billion in general operating funds for the Pentagon and $58 billion of emergency funding for overseas military operations in the next year are thought to be woefully inadequate by Graham, Senate Armed Services Committee Chair John McCain (R-AZ) and other defense hawks. 

Related: House GOP’s Creative Accounting Lifts Defense Budget  

We may then be back to a familiar situation, with neither Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky nor House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio in control of their members. With Senate and House Democrats unlikely to lift a finger for any version of a GOP budget seeking $5.5 trillion of cuts in entitlements and domestic programs, McConnell can’t afford to lose more than three GOP votes and still pass the budget. Boehner also has challenging math for passing a budget in the House without Democratic support. 

The new GOP Congress was severely challenged in passing the Department of Homeland Security’s spending bill early this month because of a deep party rift. The divide was over how best to oppose President Obama’s immigration orders that would protect millions of illegal immigrants from deportation. But that fight was over a single appropriations bill. The new GOP budget proposals pose a vast range of potential policy differences that could complicate or prevent final passage. 

“A single appropriations bill, whatever complications it has, focuses strictly of one area of policy, whereas the budget sprawls over the entire span of 13 general  policy areas,” Ross Baker, a political scientist and congressional expert with Rutgers University, said today. “It’s kind of like throwing everything in the air and having it come back down in the right order.” 

He added, “It’s a poorly understood process. The real job will fall to the Finance Committee, Ways and Means and so on to figure out the specifics of the plan. But at this point it’s a struggle over symbols and positions and it divides both parties.” 

Related: Battle Over $534 Billion Defense Budget Could Get Ugly   

Late Wednesday night the House Budget Committee seemed stalled because of sharp differences over the new spending level for defense. Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-GA) wanted to circumvent the Pentagon’s spending cap for next year by adding nearly $40 billion to an emergency overseas war funding account not subject to limits. 

He abruptly adjourned the committee last night after conservatives insisted that more than $20 billion of those additional funds be offset by spending cuts elsewhere in the $3.8 trillion annual budget. Even a last-minute intervention by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) couldn’t break the deadlock. 

After Boehner and other leaders met with Price and Armed Services Committee Mac Thornberry (R-TX) for an hour today, they chose to move the budget resolution through without the extra defense money – but then have the Rules Committee add it back in before the resolution reaches the House floor next week. 

“Chairman Price and the budget committee have done good work,” Boehner told reporters today. “But in consultation with Mr. Price and the budget committee, we agreed this morning that the rule will reflect a higher Overseas Contingency Account number to reflect the wishes of the large majority of our members.”

“It’s a process that is pretty much opaque as far as the general public is concerned,” noted Baker of Rutgers. “The budget process is probably best understood by metaphysicians and theologians than by politicians.” 

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