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Budget Leaves House Republicans in a Bind

Republicans have hammered Democrats for not passing a budget while they were in power, but divisions among House Budget Committee Republicans might leave them without a budget this year, too.

House Republican leaders have been holding listening sessions with their Members on the topic, but they are in a bind. It is unclear that they have the votes to pass a budget resolution with the numbers from the Budget Control Act, as many conservatives believe it would spend too much.

Lowering the spending cap, on the other hand, would leave appropriators with unrealistic numbers and could doom any spending bills to failure on the House floor.

Not passing a budget is also undesirable for the House GOP, as it has pilloried Senate Democrats for deciding not to pass a budget resolution this year and for relying on the Budget Control Act.

“That’s problematic. We might not pass a budget, who knows?” said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), a Member of both the Budget and Appropriations committees.

Some Republicans on the panel, such as Simpson, want to pass a budget in line with July’s Budget Control Act, which set spending levels for fiscal 2013 at
$1.047 trillion. Conservatives, on the other hand, want to bring the number down to fall in line with House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s original number of about $1.028 trillion.

The Wisconsin Republican declined to comment on budget discussions.

But further complicating things is sequestration, the  guillotine hanging over the process. Factoring in the planned cuts and lessening the effect on defense spending, conservatives would like to set the number for discretionary spending as low as $930 billion.

The problem is that Republicans may have neither enough votes in the committee to pass a budget in line with the Budget Control Act nor one that shrinks spending below it.

Nine GOP members of the Budget Committee voted against the final version of the Budget Control Act. One of them, Rep. Scott Garrett (N.J.), said it would be “tough” to pass a budget in the committee that conforms to those levels.

“We effectively could be said to be to the left, then, of the administration on spending levels,” Garrett said. “You want to live by what you voted on, which was the Ryan budget.”

With the conservative Heritage Action for America vowing to oppose any budget that pegs the numbers to Budget Control Act levels, GOP leaders likely would not  be able to pass a budget in the committee or on the House floor without Democratic support.

“If you’ve got a group of people that are going to vote ‘no’ no matter what because any money is too much money, then you’re going to need Democratic support, and that means the number has to go — guess what? — up to [$1.047 trillion],” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a member of both the Budget and Appropriations committees.

And if Ryan moves forward with his plan to reform entitlements in his fiscal 2013 budget, Democrats will most likely shun the plan regardless.

Cole said it would be pointless, then, to low-ball a budget only to have to ultimately raise the spending cap to Budget Control Act levels when they negotiate with the Senate.

“We all know that once it gets down to negotiations with the Senate, it will be done within that framework,” he said. “If the Budget Control Act says [$1.047 trillion], that’s where you’re going to be. Do you really want to structure something that you know you’re not going to hit that number, pass it, and then at the end of the day look like you caved in the fall by going up to [$1.047 trillion]?”

Passing no budget at all would be a public relations problem for Republican leaders. It would suggest a crisis of leadership in the chamber and undermine their attacks that Democrats are irresponsible for not passing a budget.

Adding another layer to the problem, House appropriators have an ambitious agenda to pass their bills by the middle of this year, before the election hoopla stymies any legislative momentum. Several appropriators said that with a number that low, they would not be able to pass their bills at all, let alone on time.

“I think it would be very difficult to pass any bills on the floor, obviously. But if that’s where it is, that’s where it is,” said Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa), an Appropriations cardinal.

Appropriations Committee Democrats have indicated that they do not intend to help pass appropriations bills if they conform to a lower level of spending than they originally agreed to in the Budget Control Act.

“An agreement should be an agreement,” said Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), an appropriator. “We expect all sides to honor that agreement.”

Garrett countered that appropriators will have to work with the number the Budget Committee gives them.

“One good thing about the appropriators is this,” he said. “They said, ‘You tell us what number you need us to appropriate to, and we can do it.’”

Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) a member of both the Budget and Appropriations committees, was more optimistic, saying the budget will probably conform to the Budget Control Act level. He said that talks are ongoing and that entitlement programs will get even more scrutiny as discretionary spending has been cut to the bone.

“We have to look at entitlements,” Calvert said. “We’ve squeezed a lot out of the discretionary side of the budget, so we have to look at the entitlement side.”

Calvert mentioned the food stamp program as a possible target. Republicans argue that funding for the program has increased in the past decade and that it is rife with fraud.

Humberto Sanchez contributed to this report.

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