Heading into a crucial budget week, four lawmakers will be key to the debate over the controversial GOP plan to balance the budget. The plan includes nearly $5.5 trillion of spending cuts and a major overhaul of Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and other entitlement programs over 10 years.
Many assume GOP leaders will find a way to push their budget through the floor and then to conference committee to be reconciled. The floor debate is likely to be explosive, however – especially in the fractious and unpredictable House.
The new masters of the budget process – Senate Budget Committee Chair Mike Enzi (R-WY) and House Budget Committee Chair Tom Price (R-GA) – will lead the Republican charge while taking cues from senior leaders off the floor. They’ll have to fend off cries of “budget gimmicks” and “heartless spending cuts” from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), the ranking members of the two committees.
With the 2016 presidential race already heating up, all four men will also be speaking to a wider audience as they make the case for their party’s fiscal policies. Here’s a look at the four major players.
Rep. Tom Price (R-GA)
Price, 60, a successor to Rep. Paul Ryan as chair of the House Budget Committee, is a fiscal conservative with faith in the economic and social benefits of a balanced federal budget. He now sees an opportunity in the new Congress for entitlement reforms without raising taxes. A physician by training, Price opposes the Affordable Care Act and authored one of the only GOP bills touted as a possible substitute.
“Our goal is not merely to make Washington live within its means,” he wrote last week in introducing his “Balanced Budget for a Stronger America.” “It is to lift the cloud of uncertainty [from] our economy… Job creators and future entrepreneurs see today’s large debt levels as tomorrow’s likely tax hikes, interest rate increases, and inflationary pressures. Through fundamental tax reform, expanded energy production and the streamlining or elimination of unnecessary regulations, our budget would [let] folks plan for the future with greater confidence and optimism.”
Price pushed the plan through his committee on a strict party-line vote Thursday, but only after a harrowing experience the night before when a bitter fight among Republicans over defense spending levels almost toppled it.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD)
Van Hollen, 54, has long been the House Democrats’ chief spokesman on budget and economic policy – and may transfer his skills to the Senate in two years. The former state legislator jumped into the race to succeed Barbara Mikulski, quickly securing the blessing of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).
From his post as ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, Van Hollen has championed President Obama’s economic plan and defended social programs for the poor and middle class important to liberal Democrats.
He also felt equally comfortable promoting long-term fiscal policy to contain the debt and put Social Security, Medicare and other programs on a more secure path. Last week he sought to tamp down accusations by progressive groups that he favors cuts in Social Security by announcing his backing of a bill to expand the program. And he pulled no punches in blasting Tom Price’s balanced budget plan.
He said House Republicans were in disarray over defense spending, budget and tax policy and their plans to eliminate Obamacare, saying all of that would help the rich but send many middle- and lower-income families reeling. “So, it’s a great budget if you’re already on top of the economic ladder, but for everybody else in America it’s going to make it harder to get ahead.”
Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY)
With his low-key, good-natured style, 71-year-old Enzi is easy to underestimate. But the former accountant and Wyoming mayor is a tough, effective legislator.
Enzi and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) had been close friends since arriving in the Senate in 1997, and Sessions, who served as ranking member of the Budget Committee while the Democrats controlled Congress, seemed to have a sharper edge and more aggressive style. But the new GOP leadership tapped Enzi, not Sessions, as chair of the Budget Committee.
Enzi was all business in drafting his version of a balanced budget resolution and pushed it through his committee last week with little fuss or arguing with the Democrats. Although he and Sen. Bernie Sanders, the ranking member, are ideological opposites, the two worked well together. “They have different points of views but work cooperatively to run the committee,” said a senior Senate GOP aide.
“The worst kept secret in America is: This administration is spending more than ever and taxing more than ever,” Enzi said Saturday in the GOP’s weekly radio address. “The federal government should spend your tax dollars wisely and responsibly and give you the freedom and control to pursue your future the way you choose.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)
The white-haired Sanders, 73, is now the dominant face of the Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee since the GOP’s takeover of Congress. A self-described Democratic socialist, the former mayor of Burlington, Vermont has a national following as a progressive and spokesperson for the political left.
Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee last year, Sanders was central to passage of a $16.3 billion Veterans Affairs reform plan, including expanded access to private health care and the hiring of more medical staff. Congress approved it after some veterans died awaiting care at a VA facility in Phoenix, Ariz.
Sanders is a top proponent of Obama’s middle class agenda and a scathing critic of the GOP’s balanced budget proposals. After Thursday’s Senate and House Budget Committee action approving the blueprint, Sanders said it was “morally repugnant” that Republicans rammed through a plan protecting tax breaks for the rich and large corporations while cutting benefits for millions of Americans.
Sanders is exploring a possible bid for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. “When you have my politics and you’re taking on the entire establishment, you have to make sure that if you do it, you do it well,” Sanders told the New Hampshire Union last week during a trip to New Hampshire.
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