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All the Budget Conference’s a Stage

Price's budget goes to the House floor without the additional defense spending national security hawks had insisted upon. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Price's budget goes to the House floor without the additional defense spending national security hawks had insisted upon. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

How do Republicans and Democrats from the House and Senate conference a partisan budget that is little more than a messaging document? They don’t — at least, not really.  

No one truly expects both sides to come to a consensus agreement on the budget. No one even really expects Democrats to play much of a role in the budget conference. It could be, as one Democratic aide with knowledge of the situation predicted, one public meeting “just for show, just to check that box.”  

But there are plenty of House and Senate differences on the budget that will need to be worked out between Republicans and, well, Republicans. For starters, and perhaps most importantly, negotiators must work out which committees will be tasked with finding savings in a reconciliation bill. Negotiators could issue reconciliation instructions to all relevant committees — like the House — or limit it to a few committees, like the Senate. Much of that will depend on whether conferees want to open up a reconciliation bill to more ideas than simply rolling back the Affordable Care Act. Figuring which committees will have a role in a reconciliation bill is one of the major things to watch in a budget conference that might wrap up its work in a week.  

The budget may carry no force of law, but it is a strong message to voters about spending priorities. While the blueprint itself may not ever need the president’s signature, it does facilitate a process for a reconciliation bill that could find its way to President Barack Obama’s desk. And that bill, which could theoretically dismantle Obamacare, would be an even clearer message to voters that the only person standing in the way of ending the 2010 health care law is the person in the Oval Office.  

Once again, just a message. But a message many conservatives think could be key for 2016.  

Another hotly contested message — one that could play an important role in future defense spending decisions — is how the budget deals with defense spending. Both budgets, in a naked ploy to get around the defense budget caps, parked tens of billions in the Overseas Contingency Operations account to appease defense hawks.  

But that’s also a difficult needle to thread with fiscal hawks.  

The Senate budget established a 60-vote threshold for any OCO spending beyond the $58 billion the president requested in his budget, while the House budget funded and waived points of order up to $96 billion for the OCO account. That spending in the House bill is outside the defense caps set under sequestration and is not offset.  

The budget itself is typically an overhyped document, given that it doesn’t become law and primarily just sets a topline number for discretionary spending. It’s a symbolic fight between Democrats and Republicans in a symbolic conference on a symbolic document. And this resolution is even less significant than many previous efforts. The topline spending level is already enshrined in the sequestion-level budget caps that were part of 2011’s Budget Control Act — an unpalatable spending level for President Barack Obama and many in Congress.  

But regardless of the president, and regardless of whether Republicans can agree among themselves, the real budget conference will come later in the year, probably much later, with the White House and top leaders or designees hammering out a compromise.  

That makes the budget resolution talks more of a public relations operation. And to that extent, newly empowered Republican leaders want a smooth operation with little drama.  

They’ll certainly get that from Senate Budget Chairman Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., who is about as low-key a lawmaker as you could find. And House Budget Chairman Tom Price, R-Ga., proved to be a valuable ally in getting the House version of the GOP budget over the finishing line after defense hawks threatened mutiny.  

On the Democratic side, Senate Budget ranking member, independent Bernard Sanders of Vermont, can be expected to use the platform of a conference meeting to lob rhetorical fireballs at Republican plans to slash spending on social programs and taxes on the wealthy.  

Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, Sanders’ counterpart on the House side, will do much of the same, especially as he tries to shore up his liberal credentials for a Senate primary.  

Kentucky Democrat John Yarmuth — one of three House Democratic conferees, along with Van Hollen  and Rep. Gwen Moore of Wisconsin — told CQ Roll Call Wednesday that Democrats were specifically looking to adopt Senate provisions on paid family sick leave and protect the privatization of Medicare. But Yarmuth also reaffirmed there wasn’t much for Democrats to fight for in the budget.  

“I don’t think any of us think that the conference is going to materially improve, from our perspective, the budget,” Yarmuth said Wednesday in a brief phone call. “The difference between the two [budgets] is somewhere we don’t want to be.”  

Van Hollen issued a similar statement. He said the mid-point between the two budgets, “or any point between them,” was wrong for America. In many ways, Yarmuth’s job is to sound as much as he can like Van Hollen. As Van Hollen exits the House to run for Senate, Yarmuth is trying to position himself as the heir apparent for Van Hollen’s budget job.  

“I certainly would be interested in becoming ranking member,” Yarmuth said. He added that a seat at the conference table, even if that position was just to highlight what’s wrong with GOP budget, gives him “a little bit of a boost to solidify credentials” for a future ranking member spot. “But that’s a long way off.”  


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