GOP Defense Angst Revives White House Budget Leverage

Price presented the House GOP's budget Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Price presented the House GOP's budget Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 19, 2015 at 11:46am

Updated 3:48 p.m., March 20 | The great Republican budget crack-up may have finally arrived. The White House just hoped it would have happened a few years ago.  

The spending tourniquet known as the sequester has split Republicans and even has some talking about tax increases, which is what the White House planned for all along when it proposed the sequester to resolve 2011’s debt-limit drama.  

On March 18, the House Budget Committee failed for the first time in memory to produce a budget , although it reconvened Thursday to adopt it after jettisoning a leadership-backed amendment to add more defense spending.  

Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, then told reporters the money for defense would be re-added via the Rules Committee, setting up a showdown on the House floor between fiscal hawks and defense hawks before the Easter recess.  

Even though Republicans belatedly got their budget through the committee, passing it on the House floor is not a given with this conference, which couldn’t even clear a one-week continuing resolution for the Department of Homeland Security this year without Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s help.  

Both House and Senate GOP budgets would use a gimmick some have derided in the past — by stuffing tens of billions of non-war spending into the off-budget war account. It’s essentially become a get-out-of-sequester-free card that Obama isn’t about to let them cash in — at least not without paying a price.  

Even if the House and Senate ultimately agree on a budget deal, they still have to contend with Obama’s veto pen when they start passing appropriations bills. And the fissures on display between defense hawks and fiscal hawks over spending and deficits could portend fertile ground for the inevitable bipartisan deal-making ahead of the Sept. 30 deadline to avert a government shutdown.  

On March 20, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest ripped Republicans for using a “slush fund” to increase defense spending instead of negotiating with Democrats, and characterized the intraparty GOP squabbling as “March madness.”  

“Trying to fund our defense efforts at sequester levels is not in the best interests of the country,” he said. He also reiterated the White House demand of equal increases for domestic and defense spending.  

“And that’s what, again, Chairman Ryan and Senator Murray were able to do (in 2013). And that should serve as a pretty effective template for finding bipartisan common ground around budget priorities this year, as well.”  

Republicans dismissed the White House criticism.  

“Republicans are going to do everything we can to make sure that our troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan have the tools they need to carry out their vital missions,” said Cory Fritz, a spokesman for Boehner. “Mocking this effort only shows how little respect the White House has for our men and women in uniform.”  

Democrats say the GOP infighting shows how unrealistic the budget caps are.  

“Nobody really thought sequester was going to go into effect,” House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., reminded reporters. The Budget Control Act setting up sequestration “was a mistake I voted for thinking it would never happen. I was wrong.”  

If the White House sticks to its guns, that could ultimately net tens of billions in domestic spending for agencies that have been squeezed since the day Boehner picked up the gavel.  

A more recent model would be the “doc fix” negotiations between Boehner and Pelosi, D-Calif., which would permanently end the annual squabble over paying doctors, hike Medicare costs for wealthier people, extend a health program for children and increase the deficit.  

Another sign a budget compromise could be in the offing is the White House and congressional Democrats have lately dropped their rhetoric from two years ago — namely, that any entitlement cuts would have to be paired with tax hikes, in what appears to be a quiet, belated acknowledgement that Republicans aren’t about to budge.  

The administration had effectively walled off hundreds of billions of cuts in Obama’s own budget unless Republicans cried uncle on taxes.  

But Obama’s decision to sign the fiscal cliff deal before the start of his second term effectively crippled his leverage on taxes because he gave away permanent tax relief without getting permanent sequester relief in return.  

The new, fuzzier demand you hear at the White House briefings — both in front of the cameras and in background sessions — is that a deal must be good for the middle class.  

And with tax hikes still appearing dead on arrival for a budget endgame, there’s a whole long list of other priorities languishing on the president’s agenda that he could conceivably get instead.  

The White House, though, is keeping expectations low. One White House aide, on condition they not be directly quoted, questioned if a Congress that hasn’t even managed to pass a bill getting tough on sex traffickers will be able to tackle bigger issues.  

And Earnest’s repeated reference to the Ryan-Murray budget deal itself is a bit of low-balling, as that deal only rolled back a small fraction of the sequestration cuts over two years.  

But the bottom line is: For the first time since the fiscal cliff deal , the White House may have some real leverage on the budget.  

Emily Ethridge contributed to this report.

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