A handful of Republicans are lining up to replace outgoing House Budget Chairman Diane Black, quietly jockeying for a gavel that will play a starring role in the upcoming tax reform fight.
Budget panel Republicans Steve Womack, Rob Woodall and Bill Johnson are all eyeing the position, the lawmakers confirmed in interviews. Womack and Johnson have already alerted Speaker Paul Ryan of their interest and started buttonholing members of the House panel that elects its chair — though Black, who is running for Tennessee governor, will likely retain her position until the House passes its 2018 blueprint, which is expected around the end of the month.
Four senior Republicans said Womack is currently front-runner. While not the most senior member on the panel, the Arkansas Republican has a good reputation with leadership and conservatives alike. He also organized the National Republican Congressional Committee’s March dinner with President Donald Trump, which brought in $30 million for the campaign arm.
“There’s an expectation that Black will step down having announced for governor of Tennessee, creating a vacancy in the chair, and I’m interested in taking the chairmanship,” Womack said. “These are very important times for our majority… and I think the Budget Committee will be very critical in establishing the right framework whereby a sustainable fiscal policy can be crafted that can reach many of the outcomes that a majority of our majority would like to see.”
The next chairman would take the gavel at a critical time for Republicans. The party has failed to repeal Obamacare, fund Trump’s border wall with Mexico or otherwise secure a single major legislative victory. Tax reform therefore looms large, with many in the GOP seeing it as a must-have to avoid a blood bath in 2018.
But to unlock the fast-tracking procedural tool enabling Republicans to circumvent the Senate’s 60-vote threshold and pass a partisan tax package, GOP lawmakers have to pass an identical budget through the House and Senate.
That’s where the new budget chairman will be critical. Even if the House clears Black’s fiscal blueprint in the coming weeks, Senate budget writers are expected to write a much different plan, jump-starting a series of high-level bicameral negotiations between budget chairmen about what a deal might look like.
There will be plenty of drama. Several senior Republican sources said the final deal might be a “shell” budget that simply includes instructions for tax reform but makes no major cuts to mandatory spending programs, as the House’s current draft proposes. That would meet with stiff resistance from conservatives, who were promised by GOP leaders that they would not have to vote on text that includes no serious reforms.
The next budget chairman will have to strike a tricky balance between conservatives eager for spending cuts and House GOP leaders dealing with the more moderate-minded Senate.
Many thought Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) — Budget Committee vice chairman — would replace Black. But the budget wonk decided to run for Senate in Indiana instead and is locking horns with Rep. Luke Messer (R-Ind.) in the hotly contested primary.
The next two most-senior members, Reps. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) and Mario Diaz Balart (R-Fla.), are both senior members of the Appropriations panel and don’t want to give up their subcommittee gavels on the powerful spending committee.
Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) and Woodall come next, and sources say both are interested, though McClintock’s office did not respond to request for comment.
Woodall, a Georgia Republican, said his goal would be “getting [the committee] out of the messaging business and translating that into action,” along with tackling budget process reform.
“In the minority you think of a messaging document. In the majority, it is a framework for how to get things done,” he said. “So what are those things we could get done together? My goal would be to find those items.”
Womack is considered the front-runner because of his leadership experience. He sits on the deputy whip team and often exceeds dues to the NRCC — something the House Republican Steering Committee takes into account when choosing chairmen.
The former mayor, who spent 30 years in the Army National Guard, would want to retain his post on the Appropriations Committee, where he is next in line for a subcommittee gavel. A spot is opening up with Rep. Charlie Dent, an Appropriations subcommittee chief, retiring next year.
Like many Budget Republicans, Womack has admired Black’s work on the current budget plan, which includes $200 billion worth of mandatory spending cuts that’s garnered applause from conservatives. Womack says he’d like to continue in that vein, arguing that reducing the national debt “cannot be satisfied by cutting discretionary spending alone.”
“With the deficits we’re talking about, it is absolutely important to have the conversation about what’s going on on the mandatory side,” he said.
Womack also argued that the budget is critical for tax reform. “It’s important for Republicans to keep their eye on the collective prize, and right now if it’s not health care, it has to be tax reform,” he said. “This [is ]an area [where] we can’t stumble, so we need to be all hands on deck on the vehicle that will give us tax reform.”
Johnson of Ohio, an early Trump defender in the House, is also considering a bid for the chairmanship. Elected in 2010, the former Air Force lieutenant colonel has always kept a lower profile on the Hill but also has a good reputation with leadership. He currently serves as an NRCC vice chair.
“I have dealt with budgets my entire life, whether it was on the mule farm or in my Air Force career or as a corporate executive,” Johnson said, in making his pitch. “Passing a budget is foundational to our constitutional mandate. There’s not much that’s more important in fact in the big scheme of things than passing a budget, balancing a budget and managing our nation’s financial and fiscal health.”
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