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House GOP Still Bickering Over Budget

Defense increase, mandatory spending cuts primary areas of disagreement

Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent says Republicans should not waste time arguing over topline levels for nondefense discretionary spending since those will likely be raised in the Senate. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent says Republicans should not waste time arguing over topline levels for nondefense discretionary spending since those will likely be raised in the Senate. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Republican squabbling over a defense spending increase and mandatory spending cuts continues to put in danger a fiscal 2018 budget resolution, and subsequently, plans to overhaul the tax code.

After a Friday conference meeting to discuss the budget and appropriations process, their second “family conversation” of the week on the topic, the House GOP appeared no closer to consensus on a budget resolution that could get the 218 needed votes on the floor.

Republicans are still debating how big of an increase in defense spending they can push for in fiscal 2018, while also arguing over how much mandatory spending cuts they can achieve over 10 years through the budget reconciliation process, which would allow legislation to pass the Senate with only a simple majority.

Republicans plan to use that process to rewrite the tax code too, because they don’t think Democrats will join them in that effort, but without a budget they won’t have a path to enacting their plan.

One sign of progress: the conference has agreed to a $511 billion topline level for nondefense discretionary spending, $5 billion less than the $516 billion sequester cap. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan told appropriators they can start drafting nondefense spending bills with that number, according to members present for the Friday meeting.

Finding consensus

However, even that consensus decision is not unanimously supported.

Rep. Charlie Dent, an Appropriations Committee member and co-chairman of the moderate Tuesday Group, said the Senate will not write their nondefense appropriations bills to a $511 billion topline because Democratic support is needed to pass appropriations bills in that chamber.

“So we will once again expend a lot of time and energy on the first launch, knowing damn well that the final bill will be at a number higher than what we’re discussing here today on nondefense discretionary,” the Pennsylvania Republican said.

Republicans are not able to pass final spending packages without Democratic support because of the Senate dynamics. But many House Republicans say they should still start the budget process with spending levels and policies that reflect conservative priorities rather than immediately give in to the other side.

To that end, House Republicans are looking at increasing defense spending in the range of $72.5 billion to $91 billion above the $549 billion sequester cap. But for Congress to actually appropriate defense dollars above the cap, they would need to make a statutory change to the Budget Control Act, which would require Senate Democrats’ support.

Still, House Republicans are pushing forward with a yet undetermined defense increase and a yet unspecified target for mandatory spending cuts, despite uncertainty whether the Senate would support either. The mandatory spending cut target would only need Senate Republicans’ backing since they’re planning to use the budget reconciliation process to achieve the savings.

The continued House GOP squabbling may prevent the Budget Committee from moving forward with a markup on Wednesday as panel members have discussed.

“I can tell you that we are very close,” Budget Chairwoman Diane Black told reporters after the conference meeting Friday.

Despite that assessment, the Tennessee Republican was less optimistic than the week prior when she stated confidently, “We’ll get something done.”

Asked Friday whether she was still confident House Republicans could adopt a budget resolution, she said, “I am working very hard to do that, and we must do it. It is imperative that we do that.”

Agreement on defense

The defense spending number appears closer to being resolved than the mandatory savings target.

While House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry and defense hawks are still pushing for a $640 billion topline, the Budget Committee and a majority of House Republicans appear ready to proceed with $621.5 billion.

“We feel like that’s a big jump in one year,” said North Carolina Rep. Mark Walker, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee. “I think there’s a consensus that a majority of our conference are saying, ‘Hey, we can’t get it all back in one year.’”

The RSC Steering Committee is supportive of the both $621.5 billion defense topline and the $511 billion for nondefense discretionary spending, Walker said. The conservative group leaders have also decided that the reconciliation target for mandatory savings should be a minimum of $200 billion, he said, noting that the Budget panel is working toward that target and has already identified $160 billion with the authorizing committees.

Black declined to specify the target her panel is pursuing.

She’s offered the authorizing committees suggestions on how they can achieve certain targets but they still lack agreement in some areas, she said.

One committee that Black appears to still be in discussions with is the Agriculture Committee. Texas Rep. K. Michael Conaway, the panel’s chairman, has said he is concerned that making mandatory cuts this year through budget reconciliation will make it harder for the Agriculture Committee to do a farm bill next year.

“We’re trying to figure out how we can do a glide path off of SNAP,” he said, referring to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Conaway said Ryan understands he needs some savings to accomplish what he hopes to do in the farm bill but added that he’s been engaged in daily conversations with the speaker and Black about helping achieve some savings through reconciliation.

“We’re going to be part of the solution, period,” he said.

Freedom Caucus view

The House Freedom Caucus is hoping for fairly deep cuts to SNAP and, to some degree, is hanging their support for the budget on that. The hard-line conservatives have not yet taken an official position on where they want the reconciliation target to be but members of the group have suggested $300 billion to $400 billion when speaking about a minimum amount they could support.

“We’re starting to see some movement, but we’re not there,” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said of talks to increase the mandatory savings target.

During a House floor vote Friday, Meadows and Freedom Caucus members Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Gary Palmer of Alabama had a lengthy discussion with Ryan in which their body language suggested disagreement. Meadows said the conversation was budget-related but otherwise declined to provide details.

Palmer, a member of the Budget Committee and the RSC Steering Committee, has been among the members pushing for a mandatory savings target above $150 billion.

“I insist that it be raised,” he said Thursday evening. On Friday as the RSC expressed support for a minimum of $200 billion, Palmer said, “We’re going in the right direction.”