When Republicans kicked the fiscal 2017 spending deadline into April last December, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said they’d rather negotiate with incoming GOP President Donald Trump than the outgoing Democratic one.
But now, congressional Republicans are talking about largely ignoring requests from the White House as they negotiate with Democrats over a spending bill to take the government off autopilot for the remaining five months of the fiscal year.
This dynamic demonstrates the state of the GOP in Washington: a party struggling to figure out how to use their “unified” government to implement the policy ideas they pitched during the campaign.
Infighting has long plagued the party, particularly in the House where Republicans have held the majority since 2011. But that has amplified now that they find themselves in a governing position, with control of Congress and the White House.
The continuing resolution that has maintained government funding is set to expire April 28. Both chambers of Congress are currently out for the Easter recess, scheduled to return just days before the funding deadline — April 24 for the Senate, April 25 for the House. That leaves little time for intraparty squabbles or across-the-aisle horse trading over whatever bill congressional leaders produce.
Political and policy differences between conservative and moderate factions that prevented House Republicans from moving forward with legislation to partially repeal and replace and the 2010 health care law — one of their top campaign promises — could also cause strife over the government funding bill.
“It’s a giant problem because anything Republicans in the House really want has to go through eight Democratic senators,” said Joshua Huder, senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute, referring to Democratic support needed to get over the Senate’s 60-vote procedural threshold.
“There’s absolutely no way to get this across the finish line, short of a massive compromise,” Huder said.
Compromise is exactly what Republicans avoided by kicking the can down the road in December. But the dynamic has not changed. As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell noted on April 7, spending bills “cannot be done by one party alone.”
So the question remains whether Republicans will look to pick a fight on the spending bill to secure some of their policy priorities. If they keep the government open but don’t secure any new big ticket items in the process, can they still claim victory?
Based on the Republicans’ own vision of holding majorities in Congress and the White House, doing nothing would be “abject failure,” said David Lublin, a government professor at American University.
“If you pass a budget that essentially extends the current situation, that would be a big win for Democrats because that’s not what the Republicans wanted,” he said.
Republicans could ask for a number of things to be included in the government funding bill, but Democrats are unlikely to accept many of them.
Among the issues that could throw a wrench into bipartisan negotiations: increases in defense spending that aren’t offset by other cuts nor matched by increases for domestic programs, funding for Trump’s border wall proposal, and provisions prohibiting funds for so-called sanctuary cities or Planned Parenthood.
For the majority, decisions remain pending.
“All items are under negotiation and are not finalized,” said Jennifer Hing, spokeswoman for the House Appropriations majority. “We expect [to] have legislation ready prior to the deadline.”
Matthew Dennis, the panel’s minority spokesman, said Democrats are negotiating in good faith over a measure that can pass both the House and Senate.
“It seems likely that, like previous years, Democratic votes will be needed to enact appropriations law, so we continue to draw a hard line against poison pill riders like border wall construction, sanctuary cities, and Planned Parenthood,” he said.
Top congressional leaders seem to understand where the land mines lie.
For example, Ryan said the GOP would prefer to defund Planned Parenthood through the budget reconciliation process and said the majority of the funding for Trump’s border wall won’t be needed until after fiscal 2017.
But two wild cards are at play: Trump and the House Freedom Caucus, said Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution.
Trump will need to decide whether he wants to use the spending bill as an opportunity to draw attention to his priorities, particularly on funding the border wall, she said.
“The unknown here is not just his ability to propose, but will he get the idea that he could wield a veto?” Binder said. While presidents rarely issue veto threats when their party controls Congress, Trump has not shown an understanding or appreciation for normal legislative practices, she said.
Mick Mulvaney, the Office of Management and Budget director, has signaled that the president plans to use his veto authority as leverage. “Elections have consequences” and the president needs to see his priorities funded if he’s going to be signing off on spending bills, he told Charlotte radio station WBT on April 9.
The Freedom Caucus is the second wild card: A group of roughly three dozen hard-line conservatives that sought and failed to use prior spending debates to extract policy concessions when President Barack Obama was in office.
“Is this the stand they want to take or [do] they want to save their fire for other battles coming down the pipe?” Binder said.
Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows has said the group would likely show “greater flexibility” than they have in past government funding negotiations, but it’s unclear how far that flexibility will go.
If the caucus does not draw a hard line over issues such as Planned Parenthood and sanctuary cities in the upcoming spending bill, that would not impact their leverage in future negotiations, Binder said.
“If they’re worried about their reputation of caving, I think their standing up for [health care] repeal put that to rest,” she said.
Health care hitch
Democrats, too, may have some requests. They’ve already signaled an interest in appropriating money for the so-called cost sharing subsidies that are part of the 2010 health care law.
The subsidies, a government payment to help insurers meet the law’s mandates for reducing out-of-pocket costs, had been paid for by the Obama administration. House Republicans sued the former administration over the constitutionality of the subsidies, arguing that they legally should be appropriated by Congress.
With control of the White House now, Republicans have to decide whether the administration or Congress should continue the payments, the absence of which could cause insurers to pull out of health insurance marketplaces. Trump told The Wall Street Journal last week that he hasn’t decided whether to fund the subsidies.
“Obamacare is dead next month if it doesn’t get that money,” the president said. “I haven’t made my viewpoint clear yet. … What I think should happen and will happen is the Democrats will start calling me and negotiating.”
In response to Trump’s threat, Democrats have suggested that Congress should appropriate money for the subsidies.
“That would be a good way for them to use their influence with their votes,” Binder said.
House Republicans could even tout that as a win given the position they took in their lawsuit. A federal judge ruled in the GOP’s favor last year, but the decision is under appeal.
As far as other potential wins in the spending bill, the GOP is unlikely to get anything big.
“If they tried some very small things they might be able to do it, but Trump is not about small,” said Lublin, of American University. “... Trump not getting everything he immediately wants doesn’t make him a loser, except maybe in his own terms.”
Republicans shouldn’t need to extract policy wins from the spending bill, Georgetown’s Huder said. They should be able to enact policy by advancing individual legislation, and any push for policy riders could speak to a lack of confidence in using regular order, he said.
“In all honesty it’s a little bit of a desperate move,” Huder said. “Because you’re trying to do something that you really should be able to do by yourself.”