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For House Budget Negotiators, the Stakes Are High

Tom Price, R-Ga., chairs the House Budget Committee hearing on
Price (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Dead on arrival at the White House and with little chance in the Senate, the House Republican budget presented Tuesday doesn’t mean a lot in terms of actual legislation. But don’t try telling that to Rep. Tom Price, the document’s chief GOP architect or Rep. Chris Van Hollen, his foil on the Democratic side.

The rollout of the House Republicans’ spending plan comes with enormous stakes for the two Budget Committee lawmakers: Van Hollen, the ranking Democrat, is looking to raise his profile ahead of a Senate run in Maryland, while Chairman Price has the unenviable task of following the gavel-holder whose name is synonymous with GOP budgets of the past four years: Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin.

The committee is slated to consider Price’s proposal Wednesday, and leadership intends to bring it to the floor next week.

But the Price plan is already hitting roadblocks — an indication Price could be in for a rough ride in his first foray as the House Republicans’ chief budget negotiator.

Major contention lies in Price’s handling of defense spending. Allied with many of the House’s most fiscally conservative hard-liners, the Georgia Republican doesn’t want to allocate funds beyond the caps on such spending imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011. He’s chosen instead to comply with the existing limits. But as a “sweetener,” he put $39 billion more than the Obama administration’s request into the “Overseas Contingency Operations” account.

The OCO account floats some defense programs in the Middle East but doesn’t bolster resources that many argue are necessary to actually fight wars and combat terrorism, according to many Republican critics, including those on the House Armed Services Committee.

Those lawmakers are now threatening to oppose Price’s budget on the floor next week unless defense spending caps are eradicated — and with every Democrat expected to vote “no,” Republican votes are critical for passage.

“Members of the [House] Armed Services Committee and others made clear what has to happen,” said HASC member Michael R. Turner, R-Ohio. “I think it was clearly heard. Now, obviously, they’re going to have difficulty in trying to put together the votes for a budget that underfunds defense.”

Fellow HASC Republican Joe Heck of Nevada said upwards of 70 lawmakers have been calling and writing letters: “I don’t think there was a willingness to try to comprehensively address the issue,” he concluded.

By Tuesday evening, and aide to a House Republican member of the Budget Committee told CQ Roll Call there had perhaps been a breakthrough: An agreement that a GOP lawmaker on the panel would offer an amendment to boost the OCO account even higher. That could appease HASC skeptics.

But a number of lawmakers and high-level House GOP aides were still grumbling that Price did not, in the lead-up to introducing the resolution, account for the level of dissent in the ranks.

“It’s no surprise the conference is being put in this position,” a senior House Republican aide said. “Looking back, Price’s uncompromising and secretive process left key members and stakeholders in the dark, but more concerning is that the process is being allowed to move forward without the support of a significant number of members.”

After a press conference Tuesday morning, Price brushed off suggestions that he hadn’t solicited sufficient input from the rank and file as he drafted his proposal.

“Oh, we’ve given every single opportunity for every single member,” Price said, “and we’ve had wonderful input, and look forward to their continued input in the process.”

Ultimately, disagreement inside the House GOP comes in the context of what the budget actually is and what the budget should be.

A budget is a non-binding document intended to govern how Congress makes various spending choices. Although it sets limits on how much Congress is supposed to spend and sets April 15 as a deadline for a bicameral agreement, none of the provisions put forth will ever have the force of law independent of other legislative action.

Practically speaking, more than anything else, the budget is an ideological blueprint intended to reflect the values of the people who authored it. So when Price says he can’t raise the defense spending caps in the budget, he isn’t lying.

“The Budget Control Act contains caps for both defense and non-defense spending, and if spending exceeds those caps, a sequester reduces spending back to the cap levels,” a GOP aide explained. “The budget resolution alone cannot change the caps or the sequester because they are law.”

But to the extent that the budget is a policy wish list, Price could recommend specifically that there should be new, less restrictive limits on defense dollars, which would send a strong statement about the caps’ misguided nature and pave the way for Congress to later codify an increase in spending for military operations.

On the other hand, since the budget is intended to mirror the priorities of its authors, Price and other fiscal hawks don’t want to suggest spending money where current law has imposed a threshold.

“They got caught up in the numbers,” reflected Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, a senior appropriator who sits on the Defense Subcommittee. “Well, when you’re at war — and there’s wars everywhere — you have to reconsider that. And I think they’re misjudging the public and how they feel.”

Pressure on Price is compounded by the fact that Congress is now entirely in Republican control: If the House and Senate both pass budgets, there could conceivably be an agreement that establishes a fiscal framework for all of Capitol Hill.

The GOP also has the tool of reconciliation, a legislative process — with certain procedural benefits — that Republicans could use to extract policy changes on the Affordable Care Act.

The staunchest fiscal conservatives in the House Republican Conference would be especially eager to vote for Price’s budget if they could use reconciliation to repeal parts of Obamacare.

Incidentally, a number of those lawmakers said they were fine with increasing defense spending in the proposal — as long as it was offset with spending cuts elsewhere.

“They’re firing with real bullets now,” Van Hollen said grimly during a Tuesday afternoon briefing on the Price budget.

Matt Fuller contributed to this report.

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