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RSC Budget Allows Conservatives to Lay Down Austere Marker

Alternative will likely not pass, but gives conservatives an outlet

The Republican Study Committee, chaired by North Carolina Rep. Mark Walker, will get a House floor vote Thursday for its more austere budget. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
The Republican Study Committee, chaired by North Carolina Rep. Mark Walker, will get a House floor vote Thursday for its more austere budget. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

House Republicans will get the chance Thursday to vote for an alternative budget blueprint that offers up more than $10 trillion in spending cuts over a decade. The plan would double the number proposed in the House Budget Committee-approved fiscal 2018 resolution, while balancing the budget in half the time.

The conservative Republican Study Committee has been given assurances its alternative will be ruled in order for a vote when GOP leaders bring the fiscal 2018 budget resolution to the floor, according to an RSC aide.

The RSC budget amendment traditionally receives a floor vote in the GOP-controlled House. And although it won’t garner enough support to pass — typically RSC leaders struggle to round up more than half of the Republican conference to vote for their proposals — it allows those who lean further right on spending cuts to show that they support a more austere plan than the resolution backed by leadership and the Budget panel.

The trillions of dollars in RSC-backed cuts are mainly for show, as there is little appetite within the conference or at the other end of the Capitol for deep reductions to the growth rate of mandatory spending.

The RSC budget targets the major health care benefit programs Medicare and Medicaid and overhauls other means-tested benefits for the poor such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

The RSC budget will contain reconciliation instructions to implement the group’s austere proposals, but there is little chance a House-Senate conference on the fiscal 2018 budget resolution will adopt the RSC strategy. Instead, the vote is aimed at providing political cover to conservatives worried about having to swallow a final product that eschews an overhaul of mandatory benefit programs or enforceable spending cuts of any kind.

Small by comparison?

The Budget Committee-approved plan also proposes sizable cuts to mandatory programs, but only about $5.4 trillion in total reductions, about half of what the RSC wants. In addition, the RSC budget proposes to get to balance by fiscal 2023, as opposed to fiscal 2027 in the underlying resolution headed to the floor Thursday.

Most RSC members will likely support the main GOP plan on final passage, however. RSC Chairman Mark Walker said in July that while the 150-plus-member organization would like to see lower nondefense spending levels, the RSC plans to support adoption of the committee’s budget resolution. “I don’t mind making it clear that we do plan on supporting Chairman [Diane Black],” the North Carolina Republican said at the time.

The RSC measure also proposes deeper cuts to nondefense discretionary programs, and less of an increase for defense, than the official House budget version. For fiscal 2018, the RSC budget proposes $394 billion in nondefense discretionary spending — a dramatic cut from $511 billion assumed in the House Budget version — and $668 billion in defense discretionary spending, including Overseas Contingency Operations, or OCO, funding.

According to a summary, the RSC budget would end the use of OCO “as a budget gimmick” to get around discretionary spending caps and hide the true cost of defense spending. By contrast, the House budget resolution assumes $621.5 billion in defense discretionary spending and $75 billion in separate OCO funding — a total of $696.5 billion for the Pentagon and other defense-related programs.

The topline discretionary numbers in both versions are ultimately meaningless, however, until lawmakers agree with the White House on changes to the 2011 Budget Control Act. What’s more, the Senate cannot even act on a budget resolution that contains toplines that exceed the current law spending caps, which are set at $549 billion for defense and $516 billion for nondefense discretionary funding.

Democrats’ response

Budget Committee Democrats are also planning to offer their version of the fiscal 2018 budget resolution and expect that because it is a full substitute budget, it will be approved for floor consideration by the Rules Committee.

Kentucky Rep. John Yarmuth, the top Democrat on the Budget Committee, is expected to present the Democratic alternative proposal to the Rules Committee on Tuesday. The Democratic alternative makes no attempt to balance the budget, aiming instead to keep debt held by the public constant as a share of gross domestic product through fiscal 2027.

It proposes to completely eliminate sequestration, adding $54 billion to both defense and nondefense discretionary categories for fiscal 2018, while holding overall spending at slightly below Congressional Budget Office projections for the next decade. The Democratic alternative proposes to protect mandatory programs from cuts while boosting tax revenue by $2.7 trillion, including through closure of “tax loopholes” and a comprehensive overhaul of immigration law.

Once the House votes on the alternative budgets and the official GOP budget resolution later this week, Republicans have to wait on the Senate before going to conference committee.

The Senate Budget Committee is expected to hear opening statements on its fiscal 2018 budget resolution Wednesday and hold a markup Thursday. The full Senate is out of session next week, meaning that chamber won’t be able to hold floor debate, its marathon amendment vote-a-rama session and a final vote until the week of Oct. 16.

After that, the two chambers’ designees can meet to hash out the differences. Many lawmakers expect the Senate’s reconciliation instructions for $1.5 trillion in additional deficits will be accepted by the House, instead of that chamber’s proposal for $203 billion in mandatory spending reductions.

“We know we are going to go to conference. We know it will change in conference,” Oklahoma GOP Rep. Tom Cole said last week. “But I think this is a lot like the appropriations process, where we passed the consolidated appropriations bill. We know it will change as we negotiate with the Senate and the administration. But we wanted a firm statement of what our principles were.”

House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said last week that he and his bloc of conservatives could support the Senate’s reconciliation instructions if the end result was a tax plan that spurs economic growth.

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