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How Congress Could Fail Its Annual Budget Test

UNITED STATES - JUNE 24: From left, Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., prepare for a news conference to discuss bills passed in the Senate during the first six months of Republican leadership, June 24, 2015. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Last year, GOP Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., celebrated their accomplishments, including the first budget resolution in six years. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

They completed just one time the biggest, and supposedly easiest, test of governing competence they’d set for themselves. Now the Republicans in charge of the Capitol are on the cusp of not even attempting a repeat performance.

Their tacit decision to walk away from the normal budget process, even before it has started, became clear this week. It’s the strongest evidence yet of the fundamental challenge facing the GOP as it campaigns for continued control of Congress: The party’s internal ideological frictions remain stronger than its yearning to calm an angry electorate by restoring functionality to the legislative gears.

The risk is considerable. Even if the Republicans could make the budgetary trains run on time, having Donald Trump as their likeliest presidential nominee has made it probable that the party loses the Senate this fall while suffering a serious, if not fatal, reduction in numbers in the House.

With that grip on the Hill so threatened, it’s arguably of paramount importance for the GOP to get a handle on the budget right away – not only to demonstrate some skill at governance to the voters of 2016, but also to shape fiscal policy a bit more before the likely return of divided government come 2017.

As a practical matter, it’s a minimalist task. In writing this year’s non-binding budget resolution, which is supposed to be the first step in the by-the-book annual routine, the only real decision for the Republicans is whether to stick with the game plan agreed upon only five months ago.

But even that is quickly proving too much for the fractured majority party to accomplish. On Monday, the Senate Budget Committee indefinitely postponed drafting its budget blueprint. The GOP majority’s tactical reasoning: That’s the best way for their colleagues with re-election troubles to avoid being forced by the Democrats into casting politically problematic votes on tax and spending ideas.

And when House members return next week, at least 30 of the most combative Republican conservatives are likely to still be insisting on re-opening last fall’s budget agreement. Such continued intransigence would guarantee there won’t be much of a debate on that side of the Capitol, either.

At issue is the grand total for discretionary spending in fiscal 2017, which starts Oct. 1. The deal Congress ratified in October sets the amount at $1.07 trillion – which is 3 percent, or $30 billion, more than what the budget hawk combatants say they can live with.

The compromise Speaker Paul D. Ryan is offering them is that, in return for accepting that new top line, he’ll schedule a House vote on a $30 billion package of reductions in mandatory spending. It’s a trade off the hard-liners probably won’t embrace because, while providing them some political cover, they can’t abide the reality that the spending would surely happen while the curbs to entitlements would just as surely be blocked by President Barack Obama’s veto pen.

As long as such resistance remains, the GOP high command won’t put any document before the House knowing it doesn’t have sufficient votes for adoption. A Budget Committee markup next week is as far as the process would get.

It’s a remarkable turnabout from last year. Then, Republicans had newly taken total control of Congress promising to restore the normal rhythms of the legislative branch. The first plausibly easy way of doing so was the budget resolution, because it could neither be filibustered by Democratic senators nor vetoed by the Democratic president.

Republicans papered over their internal disagreements long enough to get the job done. Only 14 of their own voted “no” in the House and only two (presidential aspirants Ted Cruz and Rand Paul) dissented in the Senate, allowing the party to boast credibly that the era of stalemate was fading. It was the first completed budget resolution in six years.

The absence of such a measure does not, by itself, bring the annual debate to a halt. The Appropriations panels on both side of the Hill may still begin producing their versions of the dozen bills that are supposed to apportion money to every agency and program. That should be relatively easy this spring because the grand total for the coming year is almost identical to what’s being spent this year.

Once the bills get out of committee, however, they’ll all run into hurdles that may prove too high.

On the House floor, there’s every reason to suspect the same couple of dozen fiscal hard-liners, who won’t countenance any budget blueprint with the new spending total, would also oppose any individual spending bill embodying such an increase. That would mean finding a decent percentage of Democrats willing to vote “yes” – not likely from a caucus that favors more spending than the GOP, especially on domestic programs, and is also happy to watch the majority leadership twist in the election-year wind.

Bipartisanship will also be needed in the Senate, where 60 votes are needed to get almost anything done and Republicans occupy 54 seats. In a bid to win over enough Democrats to get appropriations bills passed, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been promising the other side ample time and latitude for offering amendments. Recent history has shown, however, that such early hopes for collaboration frequently fall victim to the conclusions by one or both sides that intransigence is more in their short-term interests.

​(Another factor pointing to a gumming-up of the Senate’s appropriations timetable: Under the rules, without a budget resolution it will be permissible for senators to force roll calls on their own ad-hoc budget resolutions, which are in reality campaign manifestos designed to put their political opponents a bind).

The process may be convoluted, but the political take-away is not: The Republicans are not in good position to hold it together this election year on exercising the power of the purse. It’s the fundamental assignment for the legislative branch, and a return to failure as the default setting isn’t going to make the angry electorate happier.

Contact Hawkings at and follow him on Twitter at @davidhawkings .


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