Are House Republicans in danger of not being able to pass a budget? Not quite yet.
Many conservative Republicans, especially those in the House Freedom Caucus, are unhappy with leadership's decision to write a Republican budget resolution with the fiscal 2017 spending level approved in last year's budget deal. But they also say they they're willing to get behind the plan if they can secure some other concessions in the process.
"Right now, there are a number of us who are looking for a way to get to 'yes'; and that’s a pretty high bar to get to," caucus member Mark Meadows, R-N.C., told Roll Call.
The roughly 40 members of the House Freedom Caucus have yet to coalesce around a single ask and until they do, they lack leverage to truly influence the budget negotiations. Leadership can afford to lose 29 Republican votes, or about three quarters of the HFC, and still pass a budget resolution without any Democratic support, which they know they won't get.
Still, Ryan is taking their concerns seriously. The Wisconsin Republican had a "really helpful discussion" with Freedom Caucus members over beers in his office on Tuesday evening, according to his spokeswoman, AshLee Strong. "Almost all members of the House Republican Conference want to get back to 'regular order' in passing individual appropriation bills, and an important first step in that process is passing a budget," Strong said.
Freedom Caucus members declined to detail what they discussed with Ryan but were willing to talk about what it will take for them to support the budget.
"I’d love to see lower spending levels, and in absence of lower spending levels I’d love to see us reallocate where some of that spending is and really address the entitlements that continue growing," Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., said.
Duncan said he believes there is a way for many conservatives to support the budget but that path is not yet clear. "We’re all on different pages on what it’s going to take," he said.
House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price acknowledged that the spending levels are a concern and said the panel is working to build support among the broader Republican conference, which is not easy. “It’s just like a balloon,” he said. “You push in somewhere and it pokes out the other side.”
Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., the outsider who came to the House after defeating then Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a GOP primary, told reporters that if members like him are to support a budget resolution at the levels in current law, they'll need promises about budget process reforms, especially from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
"I want some of those promises in writing, because Mitch McConnell's going to be key to that process moving forward. So, if we're going to make compromise for what was called a 'crap sandwich' budget deal by everybody, that requires that we get some good news too," Brat said. "I just want to see some good news promised in writing, and then I think we can all be happy and have team ball and make some great progress for the American people."
"If we're going to have an unpromising budget process this year that doesn't make gains, you need some assurances," Brat told reporters outside a panel to launch a new project designed to promote the restoration of powers to Congress under Article One of the Constitution. "You can sign your name to what you will promise to put forward."
While other House Freedom Caucus members agree with Brat’s general sentiments, they were less obstinate in saying they expect some kind of commitment from McConnell that they take up a budget in the Senate.
"There’s not a demand of that,” Meadows said. “There's an expectation that perhaps he won't. And I think that that is a factor in this. But having the House demand the Senate do something, vice versa, it becomes problematic."
HFC member Raúl Labrador of Idaho said the Senate's budget plans won't affect how he votes on whatever the House comes up with. "I worry about what the House does; I never worry about the Senate does," he said.
Labrador said conservatives are open to voting for a budget with the higher spending levels so long as the House takes action, whether in the budget or elsewhere, to address the growing deficit.
"The biggest deficit issue right now is entitlement programs that are not even part of the budget," he said. "If we can do something in the entitlement programs that will reduce the growing deficit, then you are reducing the funding."
Lamenting President Barack Obama's willingness to take big action on entitlement programs, Budget Committee member Tom Cole said the focus should be on doing what's necessary to get a president who will and expressed doubt that reopening the possibility of a shutdown showdown in September would be helpful to that effort.
"We've done as much as we can do with control of a single chamber," the Oklahoma Republican said. "Now we've got the Senate. It's a little bit better, but you've got to have a willing partner down at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue if you want to tackle the deficit. So, I think the energy would be better spent on making sure we elect a president that we can work with."
House leaders have asked the Budget Committee to adhere to the fiscal 2017 spending number agreed upon in last year’s budget deal, and there's bipartisan and bicameral support for that decision.
"Re-opening this negotiation is going to create chaos and delay," Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin said. "Wouldn't it be great if the Republicans in both the House and the Senate had a common agreement to stand by their budget agreement of just a few weeks ago?"
Cole agreed that Republicans should stick to the deal, noting they got some things out of it too. "It was our defense hawks that I think appropriately didn't want to go through a sequester for defense, so I doubt most of the people that want to deal with this want to give back the defense gains, so I mean. I'm sorry," Cole told Roll Call.
Labrador is one of the conservatives that thinks defense cuts should be on the table.
"Our party tells the poor, the needy, single woman that we're going to cut your programs but we're not going to look at military spending. If you're a true fiscal conservative, you're going go to look at all the things," Labrador said at a Heritage Action policy event Wednesday.
Rep. Mick Mulvaney, another House Freedom Caucus member, said that there were rumblings some of the defense hawks wanted to further increase the military spending figures, something that would assuredly lead Democrats like Durbin to call for equal increases on domestic accounts.
"It's what happened last year … it’s how we ended up where we are," said Mulvaney, appearing at the same Heritage action event as Labrador. "Until we change that game, then the overall environment of the place is not going to change."
Mulvaney also said there was mistrust that the Senate would follow through on taking up the dozen individual appropriation bills, regardless of the top-line numbers, pointing to the lack of progress on the spending legislation after Congress implemented the 2013 budget agreement that Ryan, as House Budget chairman, crafted with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
Although Mulvaney expressed little hope that the Senate would change, he hopes House leaders' responses to the upper chamber's inaction will. One of the reasons members wanted to oust Speaker John Boehner, Meadows said, was that he "failed to defend the House as a co-equal branch of government."
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