After months of leadership's best-laid plans falling apart on the floor and behind the scenes, House GOP leaders eked out a much-needed victory Wednesday, with Republicans endorsing a budget that added even more defense dollars to the blueprint reported out committee.
The House voted 228-199 to adopt the budget resolution, after first endorsing that budget in a closer 219-208 vote. Leadership chose a quirky rule to get the budget through, making it so that the top vote-getter among six budget proposals would get a vote on final adoption. Ultimately, everything went according to plan. And more Republicans jumped on the budget bandwagon after it was clear the measure had the votes to get through the chamber.
Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., and his chief deputy whip, Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina, were seen hugging it out on the House floor after the vote. This was a win they both needed — and they knew it.
As part of the plan, Republicans dispensed with the budget that made it out of the Budget Committee, which mustered only 105 "yes" votes, all Republicans. That proposal, which became known around the Capitol as "Price 1," would not have added any additional defense money to the budget beyond the $94 billion already set for the Overseas Contingency Operations fund. Defense hawks made it clear that such a budget would not get their approval. They wanted even more money given to the war operations account.
Democrats criticized the OCO money as a "slush fund" that Republicans were using to give more money to defense and avoid the caps that would trigger sequestration. Republicans seemed to happily acknowledge that they were doing just that.
The budget conforms to the caps set under the Budget Control Act, meaning it would suggest spending $523 billion for defense and $493.5 billion for non-defense discretionary programs in the coming fiscal year.
Overall, the House budget would cut $5.5 trillion over 10 years by repealing Obamacare — roughly $2 trillion in savings there, by GOP calculations — and another $2 trillion or so from reducing growth costs associated with Medicare, Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps. Democrats balked at the cuts, and argued that the budget would "play games with defense spending," as Budget ranking Democrat Chris Van Hollen of Maryland put it.
What Van Hollen was referring to was Republicans using an Overseas Contingency Operations fund to plus-up defense spending by $96 billion, to roughly $615 billion in fiscal 2016. The defense spending became a major point of contention on the GOP side between defense hawks and fiscal conservatives.
When the process officially kicked off last week, Budget Chairman Tom Price pushed a budget resolution that didn't contain enough defense funding for the hawks in the House Armed Services Committee, who threatened to defect if their concerns went unaddressed.
Under pressure from leadership, Price tried to attach an amendment during the committee markup that would boost the Overseas Contingency Operations account by $2 billion and remove a requirement that OCO money be offset. That idea didn't fly with the panel's fiscal conservatives.
Despite insistence from leadership that the amendment had the votes, the Budget Committee reported out a resolution without the additional OCO funding, and leaders arrived at a compromise gambit for floor consideration they hoped would allow members to blow off steam, but not sink the entire budgetary ship.
They agreed to bring two versions of the leadership-sanctioned blueprint to the floor: One with the additional OCO funding and one without it. There would also be votes on alternative budgets sponsored by House Democrats, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus and the Republican Study Committee.
The catch? All six would be considered under a quirky procedural maneuver called "Queen of the Hill ," meaning whichever measure garnered the most votes at the end of the day would win the privilege of being shipped to the Senate.
Speaker John A. Boehner, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise all expressed confidence Tuesday the budget with the extra OCO money would prevail, and went ahead with their plan on Wednesday hoping nothing would go horribly wrong.
Risks included the possibility their vote count was off — an embarrassment leadership has already endured once this year. The conservative advocacy group Heritage Action had endorsed the leaner RSC budget and none of the others, which some members feared would tip the balance, especially with anticipated crossover support from House Republicans both in and outside the conservative working group.
The vote tallies for remaining budgets fell mostly along party lines, with some defections. Here's how they stacked up:
- GOP budget without additional OCO funding (the one that passed out of Price's committee): 105-319, with all "yes" votes coming from Republicans.
- RSC budget: 132-294, with 112 Republicans voting "no."
- House Democratic budget: 160-264, with 22 Democrats voting "no."
- CPC budget: 96-330, with 86 Democrats voting "no."
- CBC budget: 120-306, with 62 Democrats voting "no."
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