Quirky ‘Queen of the Hill’ Rule Could Solve GOP Budget Impasse

Posted March 23, 2015 at 8:46pm
Flores, R-Texas, attends a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center to introduce border security legislation titled
Flores, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, said his group’s proposed budget sets out markers for the GOP. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Republicans are breaking out their procedural rulebooks for the House budget resolution, with leadership getting creative to appease defense hawks who want additional spending and conservatives who are apt to reject more military dollars that aren’t offset.

The House Rules Committee Monday set up a series of votes this week on six budget proposals: The one reported out of committee, the version reported out of committee with an additional $2 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations, a leaner Republican Study Committee budget, a House Democratic Caucus budget, a proposal from the Progressive Caucus, and one from the Congressional Black Caucus.

The budget with the $2 billion additional defense dollars is the one House leadership ultimately wants to see adopted. That proposal will be the final vote in the series.

Here’s how the process works: the budget that gets the most votes is the one that wins. In congressional parlance, it’s called “Queen of the Hill.”

GOP leaders had to get funky with the rule after the Budget Committee reported out a bill without the additional $2 billion that Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee said was critical to their support. It seemed like the Rules Committee would just include self-executing language — making a bill with the amendment to the base text — but conservatives balked. They threatened to vote down any rule that simply added money without an offset for that expense and without a real vote.

Now that Republicans have found a way to thread the needle, allowing votes on the alternatives, conservatives may be more willing to see the budget — even if it is one with more defense spending — across the finish line.

“One of the single most important things I ran on was getting rid of Obamacare, and I can start smelling it,” Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., told CQ Roll Call.

Salmon is referring to the prospect of using budget reconciliation to tackle the health care law. And while GOP leadership has tried to manage expectations on reconciliation, conservatives seem to believe that, if they can just get the resolution to conference, they’d be able to push for all sorts of wish list items.

But that’s not to say the budget vote is a lock. It will still be a difficult haul for leadership, and conservatives may try to convince their colleagues to go with the proposal sans the $2 billion more for OCO. (That fund is already getting $94 billion.)

Of course, even if everything goes according to leadership’s plan, there’s plenty to watch for with the stacked budget votes — and Democrats might have a few procedural tricks at their disposal.

For example, the RSC budget could be entertaining theater if Democrats, as they’ve done in the past, vote present to force Republicans to defeat the more conservative blueprint on their own.

On Monday, RSC Chairman Bill Flores defended making Republicans take that tricky vote on his group’s budget. “We’re trying to put an aspirational flag out there,” he said.

The Texas Republican acknowledged “it could be considered inconvenient” for some Republicans to vote on the RSC blueprint. But, he said, “even if it goes down,” some components would wind up in a House budget somewhere in the future. “We have had a positive impact on the overall budgeting process,” Flores said, “and we’ve had a positive impact on the deficit direction of this country, and this budget will continue to do that whether it passes or it fails.”

The RSC budget has historically been more aggressive in deficit reduction than the House Republican proposal. This year is no different. The House budget would cut $5.5 trillion over 10 years by repealing Obamacare — roughly $2 trillion in savings there, by GOP calculations — and another $2 trillion or so from reducing growth costs associated with Medicare, Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program known commonly as food stamps.

The RSC budget claims $7.1 trillion in savings over 10 years: $2 trillion by slashing Obamacare; $1.2 trillion in other mandatory spending cuts; $1.1 trillion in discretionary spending; and roughly $1.5 trillion in cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Flores told reporters Monday he wanted the public to consider this as a “serious” proposal, which is why the RSC didn’t cut any Cabinet-level agencies. Still, he recognizes the RSC budget is earmarked for rejection.

The larger question is which Republicans vote for and against the overall GOP budgets. Republicans aren’t counting on any Democratic votes to get the resolution over the finish line, and Democrats could play favorites with one proposal if they really wanted to be tricky.

If some Democrats actually voted for the original budget reported out of committee last week, and then withheld their support for the budget with the $2 billion more for OCO, they could thwart GOP leadership’s plans. By lending support to the GOP budget that’s supposed to fail, theoretically making that budget the ‘Queen of the Hill,’ Democrats could further fracture Republicans. Such a move, while unlikely, would certainly anger defense hawks who already feel the GOP conference is being unduly controlled by its most conservative elements.

Of course, any tactic like that might be too cute for Democrats — is the president’s party really going to vote for a bill that repeals Obamacare and makes $2 trillion worth of cuts to entitlements? — but it’d certainly make for some interesting floor drama.