House Republicans' positions on the budget seem to be hardening, not softening, increasing the likelihood that they may not be able to produce a budget that 218 members can support.
Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price, R-Ga., and GOP leadership continued talks with members from various factions of the Republican conference this week, but the negotiations have barely moved the needle. Price said Friday he expects to have a budget resolution to present to the conference next week, but no final decisions have been made.
A fiscal 2017 spending plan that can pass the House would be one that strikes a compromise between leadership and members who believe the budget needs to adhere to spending levels agreed to in last year's budget deal, $1.07 trillion, and those who want to stick to the sequestration spending level, $1.04 trillion — a difference of $30 billion in discretionary spending.
Price is "doing a yeoman’s job to try to find that sweet spot," said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C. But that sweet spot could be elusive, he acknowledged. "A number of us don’t want to go there, but with each day that passes, the idea of not passing a budget becomes more real."
"Everybody agrees it would be best for us to pass a budget," Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., added. "But the real question is, 'Are we really interested in giving sort of a seal of approval to that higher number that only a small portion of us voted for?'”
The answer to that question — at least for the roughly 40-member House Freedom Caucus that Meadows and Mulvaney helped found — seems to be "no." The leaders of Republican Study Committee on Thursday also joined that camp with at least two-thirds of the conservative caucus' steering committee voting to support the lower number.
"I think the dirty little secret is actually a lot of members who are probably even more toward the center than the RSC don’t want to vote for that higher number," Mulvaney said. Most Republicans voted to support the omnibus, which reflected the higher fiscal 2016 caps from the budget deal, because Wisconsin Rep. Paul D. Ryan had just taken over as speaker, he said.
Asked during his weekly news conference Thursday if he was confident the House would pass a budget, Ryan said, “It’s going to be up to the members. We’re going to have another — we’re going to have a conference where Tom Price will lay out a plan.”
Despite the strong preference for a budget written to the lower number, members of both the Freedom Caucus and the RSC say they are open to the higher number if there are equal cuts to offset the increased spending. A standalone package of mandatory spending cuts to offset the increased discretionary spending in the budget "has merit as one of the ingredients" needed to convince members to vote for the budget, Price said.
But finding $30 billion in savings that 218 members can support is not that easy. Meadows said options under discussion include cuts to Medicare that would help make the program more solvent or changes to welfare programs designed to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse. Democrats would undoubtedly oppose those kinds of cuts, meaning that any savings package Republicans come up with won't go beyond the House.
"At the end of the day it’s not going to pass the Senate. So it’s just — it’s a sight to behold them doing somersaults to placate the Tea Party elements,” said Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.
Since the strategy wouldn't result in savings enacted into law, “I can’t imagine the Tea Party folks and their caucus are going to be fooled by that,” Van Hollen added.
RSC Chairman Bill Flores, R-Texas, said in a statement Thursday after the steering committee's vote that if the discretionary spending level is going to be set higher than $1.04 trillion than it needs to be offset with "concrete spending reductions, either in non-defense discretionary spending or through enacted mandatory savings."
Freedom Caucus members have also said they are looking for real cuts, not promises of future savings.
"We’ve witnessed for the last five years the land of promise, and so I think at this point actions on meaningful reform or at least a very actionable, no-default plan would be critical as part of any exchange for a higher number,” Meadows said.
Speaking with reporters Friday, Flores declined to talk about specific proposals but noted that Ryan's advisory group, representatives from the RSC, the Freedom Caucus, and the moderate Tuesday Group, discussed several options during their weekly meeting Thursday. He said the impression he got from that meeting was that all parties wanted to remain engaged toward finding a solution.
Still, he acknowledged it's possible Republicans won't find that solution. "I don’t think it’s a good option, but it is an option," Flores said. "It’s not one that I think I would want to go home and tell the American people we couldn’t pass a budget.”
Mulvaney, who is also part of the speaker's advisory group, agreed that no one has given up on the possibility of a compromise.
"There’s still an option of doing it in true regular order, which is locking the Budget Committee in the room for the weekend and seeing if there’s something that both Dave Brat and Tom Cole could vote for," Mulvaney said naming a conservative and a moderate member of the conference. "If Dave Brat and Tom Cole could vote for it, then maybe there’s a budget worth passing.”
Cole, R-Okla., said he believes there is a solution out there that both he and the conservative Brat of Virginia could get behind, but that the House can still pass a budget if that doesn't happen.
"We will get to a place where I think we can get 218," he said.
Passing a budget is an "indispensable precondition" to making the appropriations process work and to setting up a reconciliation process that could be used to enact meaningful changes to entitlement programs, Cole said.
"Why would you blow the opportunity?" he said. "I think at the end of the day enough people will see that and they'll get there."
Conservatives, however, don't feel like they have any reason to back down from their demands. If anything, the anti-establishment fervor that the presidential contest has highlighted gives the more ground on which to stand.
“The House Freedom Caucus is to the House sort of what Donald Trump is to the larger establishment," Mulvaney said. "So yeah, to that extent it does allow us to go to leadership and say, ‘Now do you believe us? Because things are really different than you perceive them to be.’”
Paul Krawzak contributed to this report. Contact McPherson at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @lindsemcpherson.
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