The House Republican budget is in trouble.
Speaker Paul Ryan’s Republican leadership team knows it. Most members of the House are acutely aware of it. And most of them even realize how bad it will look. The same party that dreamed up “No Budget, No Pay” to shame Democrats for skipping their fiscal blueprint might now take a pass on its own.
The patient is not totally dead — but it’s fair to say the shock plates are firmly planted on its chest. Top Republicans believe the GOP will be able to advance the 2017 budget out of the Budget Committee chaired by Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), but whether it will ever be able to make it to the House floor is an open question. Most aides and lawmakers involved in the process doubt it will garner the requisite votes to clear the chamber.
The crux of the issue is quite simple. Conservatives believe the spending levels — which are mandated by law — are too high. Defense hawks won’t go any lower.
And the stakes are quite high. Failing to pass a budget wouldn’t be bad just for Ryan’s gambit as the new speaker to get the House functioning again. It would also stymie the appropriations process and likely force the House to pass yet another stopgap spending bill. Some conservatives have railed against so-called continuing resolutions and would prefer the House to pass all 12 appropriations bills — that’s the “regular order” everyone has been clamoring for. But absent a budget, that idea will likely be in the dustbin.
It’s not for lack of trying.
Behind the scenes, Ryan — the Budget Committee chairman for the first four years of this Republican majority — has been quietly working to get the process in order.
He’s been meeting with conservative budget hawks, attempting to incorporate their suggestions into the package. The efforts include an attempt to rein in spending for projects not authorized by Congress and to bolster a $30 billion deficit-reduction package that would ride alongside the budget. One source said the speaker is looking to find real savings that can be achieved.
At the same time, Ryan has been meeting with Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) to keep him apprised of the state of play. For years, Rogers, a longtime appropriator, has wanted the House to go through the regular appropriations process rather than reverting to the ritual of passing last-minute catch-all spending bills to avert disaster.
On Tuesday, House Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio and South Carolina Rep. Mick Mulvaney — a leading budget hawk — met with Ryan to discuss the plan. The Freedom Caucus announced this week it would oppose the package as currently written. Its members are clearly unmoved by the leadership’s overtures.
“We’ve been talking to leadership for several weeks, giving them the opportunity to make some good pitches to us, and so far everything we have heard has been less than stellar,” said Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), a Freedom Caucus member. “We want to help with the process, we want to have a budget, [but] we want to have a budget that complies with what we promised the American people. The budget right now … does not take into reality how the American people feel.”
What Ryan is not going to do, though, is try to jam the budget through the House. He’s well aware of the criticism that the chamber has been run from the top down for too long. And he won’t lower overall spending numbers, knowing that strategy would also likely stop the appropriations process in its tracks.
There are some potential escape hatches. GOP leaders are considering a mechanism to “deem” the budget number to be binding, which would allow the House to begin the appropriations process without a formal budget blueprint. But Ryan will do that only if 218 Republicans go along, sources said.
A stopgap measure to keep the government open is the final — and perhaps most likely — option.
Ryan has been even-keeled about it all in public, and by all accounts, in private as well. If the House fails to pass a budget, he says, it will be the collective decision of Republican lawmakers. The speaker has privately laid out the scenarios to members, and now it’s time for them to make a decision.
“I think it’s just all of the anxiety coming to a crescendo in this country,” Ryan said Tuesday, responding to why the budget is such a heavy lift this year. “You have to understand: We’re the body of government closest to the people. We’re up for election every other year. And there’s just a lot of anxiety that’s out there. That’s point No. 1.
“Point No. 2, we want to pass a budget we believe it’s very important for budgeting reasons. I used to write budgets here. But I promised in this speakership, we’re not going to have a top-down, cram-it-down-people’s-throat kind of leadership. We’re going to make decisions as a team. We’re going to push power out to the members. And we’re going to make a team decision on this issue.”
Ryan’s aides openly mock the idea that the speaker is constantly subject to “tests.” But both the budget and the Wisconsin Republican’s response to Donald Trump’s demeanor on the campaign trail provide a glimpse of his leadership style. Ryan has openly criticized Trump’s behavior — his call to bar Muslims from the country, and his reluctance to condemn the violence at his rallies and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. But Ryan believes it’s not his place to oppose his candidacy.
On the budget, Ryan is willing to work with his conference to try to get the restive right flank that bedeviled his predecessor, John Boehner, on board. But the speaker is not prepared to twist arms.
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