How Republicans' Brilliant Budget Tactic Backfired
Policy + Politics

How Republicans' Brilliant Budget Tactic Backfired

iStockphoto/Getty Images/The Fiscal Times

For years, Republicans had a great issue to lord over the Democrats: While the House routinely passed annual budget resolutions, the Democratic-controlled Senate did not. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other GOP leaders taunted the Democrats for their irresponsibility and disregard for "regular order."

Last January, the House passed the "No Budget, No Pay" act, a clever piece of legislation requiring lawmakers in both chambers to pass a budget resolution by April 15 or see their pay withheld until they do.

"This bill simply says, ‘Congress, do your job,’" said House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. "When I grew up in Wisconsin, if you had a job and you did the work, then you got paid. If you didn’t do the work, you didn’t get paid. It’s that simple."

Republicans got their way: The Senate embraced the legislation and went on to pass a $3.6 trillion budget blueprint of its own this spring, vastly different in its priorities and spending levels than the House-passed budget. And now, the Republicans’ clever posturing has turned into a massive political headache for them. That’s because it has become clear that House and Senate Republicans have no interest in negotiating a final budget deal with the Democrats. Many of them fear that if they are lured to the bargaining table, the results could include another tax hike or raising the debt ceiling.

Ryan and Boehner have fended off repeated Democratic calls for the two sides to appoint negotiators and officially begin talks. They argue that it doesn’t make sense to begin formal talks until the two parties can informally agree to a budget "framework" that would be acceptable to rank-and-file Republicans.

What they would be seeking in these pre-negotiation negotiations is a commitment from the Democrats that they won’t seek another tax increase to help reduce the long term deficit and that they would go along with d about $90 billion less in domestic and defense discretionary spending in the coming fiscal year than contained in the Senate-passed budget.

Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., have made it clear that’s not going to happen.

Boehner has repeatedly rejected Democratic calls to appoint conferees to begin the talks. And with President Obama reeling from IRS and Justice Department scandals, Republicans have even less incentive to go to the budget bargaining table.

"Now, we all stood on this floor and heard our Republican colleagues criticize the United States Senate for three years because they did not have a budget," Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee, said last week. "Well, guess what? The United States Senate passed a budget more than 53 days ago. But now what’s happened is the Speaker of this House has refused to go to conference to negotiate a final budget.

"We heard for weeks and weeks the mantra, ‘no budget, no pay,’" Van Hollen added. "Apparently that was a meaningless cry, because as of right now, there is no federal budget and members of the House and the Senate are still getting paid. Did you mean it? Or did you not mean it?"

The situation appears even more hopeless in the Senate, where Republicans are fighting among themselves over whether to negotiate a compromise budget with the Democrats or sit it out. The fight is pitting Tea Party newcomers, including Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida, who are opposed to talks, against veteran Senators John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Susan Collins of Maine, who favor going to conference.

Cruz is attempting to carve out a major role for himself on a wide range of policy issues, including immigration and the budget. In an extraordinary floor speech last week, Cruz essentially said he wouldn’t trust McCain and other old guard Republicans to protect the party’s budget priorities because they were complicit in previous budget deals that contributed to the nearly $17 trillion national debt.

"The senior senator from Arizona urged this body to trust the Republicans," Cruz said on the floor last Wednesday. "Let me be clear. I don’t trust the Democrats, and I think a whole lot of Americans likewise don’t trust the Republicans or the Democrats, because it is leadership in both parties that has got us into this [fiscal] mess."

This intra-party squabble in the Senate has flummoxed and paralyzed GOP leaders. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who is facing a potentially difficult reelection campaign next year, and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the number two Republican, are standing back while the two factions square off, according to Politico.

"I think it looks like a stalemate," Ron Bonjean, a Washington policy strategist and former Republican congressional spokesman, told The Fiscal Times last week. "I think both sides recognize there will not be a successful outcome from a budget conference . . . so why waste your time?"

Moreover, Bonjean said, "The Senate is beginning to turn into the House of Representatives where you have a core group of Tea Party Republicans versus the Establishment and the leadership." That is a recipe for gridlock.

Stan Collender, a federal budget expert and communications specialist, said the congressional Republicans "put themselves behind the eight ball this year" by daring the Senate Democrats to engage in budget talks when the Republicans had little room to maneuver on key budget issues.

"Look, one of the things I learned from talking to the Tea Party is that they consider compromise a sin," Collender said in an interview. "Now, you cannot go to conference without compromising, because that’s what a conference is for. So this is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation."

If they refuse to go to conference, Collender added, they will be reneging on Boehner’s pledge to restore "regular order" to the budget process – meaning the two chambers formally negotiate differences between their two budgets and produce a compromise package used to allocate spending in fiscal 2014. If they do go to conference, "they will immediately be accused [by the Tea Party] of collaborating with the enemy."