Speaker Paul D. Ryan was supposed to be the one person who could unite a fractured House Republican conference, but if the current budget battle is any indication, unity may not be an achievable goal.
The Wisconsin Republican led a GOP conference meeting Friday in which he laid out three options for how members can choose to set fiscal 2017 funding levels in the upcoming budget resolution. But only one of those options -- sticking to the funding levels approved in last year’s budget deal -- will give Congress a chance at passing appropriations bills through regular order, he said, according to a GOP source in the room.
Ryan's presentation received applause but did not seem to change any minds. Members leaving the meeting reiterated the same views they've held for weeks: Conservatives want a budget written to the lower sequester levels; defense hawks want to retain or even raise the agreed-upon level for defense; and other members support adhering to the levels reached in the budget deal.
"I heard some new ideas but I didn't hear any new sentiment,"said House Freedom Caucus member Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C.
If anything was clear from Friday's "family discussion," as Ryan has referred to the budget talks, it is that House leadership has changed, but the GOP membership has not. Here they are barely a month into the new legislative session already fighting over competing priorities over the budget. It's the same infighting that led former Speaker John A. Boehner to take control and offer his own solutions.
Ryan, to his credit from members, is letting the members work out their differences themselves.
"I think the decisions are going to be made by the members of the GOP conference, not a couple people on the second floor of the Capitol," Freedom Caucus member Mark Meadows said, referring to the leadership office suites.
Others also noted the difference between Friday's conference meeting and past discussions on the budget and other issues.
"That meeting never would have taken place under the previous leadership," Mulvaney said. "In the past, we were essentially told, 'Vote for this or you're a bad Republican.' There was an entirely different sense in that room today."
Republican Study Committee Chairman Bill Flores, R-Texas, said Ryan has facilitated a more transparent discussion. "There's a lot more of a participating style and less of a, 'Here, this deal's cooked. We want you to vote for it.'"
The speaker may not be predetermining the outcome but he is making his views known. He told the conference that if they want a real shot at passing individual appropriations bills they would need to respect the budget agreement and write the 10-year budget blueprint to the higher fiscal 2017 numbers. Ryan said he couldn't promise all 12 bills would be signed into law but said he feels Congress has an obligation to try, according to the source in the room.
The other two options -- setting fiscal 2017 spending at sequestration levels or keeping the increased level of defense funding but returning to sequestration levels for non-defense -- would guarantee that the Senate will block appropriations bills from moving forward, Ryan told the conference. That means Congress will ultimately end up passing a continuing resolution or omnibus appropriations bill to fund the government. Not passing a budget or appropriations bills is also a possibility, the speaker said, noting that would be a shame.
Not everyone was happy with the options Ryan presented. "I think it’s a false choice," Freedom Caucus founding member Raul R. Labrador, R-Idaho, said. "I think the Constitution says pretty clearly that we pass appropriations, [the Senate] pass[es] appropriations and we can go to conference. That’s the way it should happen. And we can pass our appropriations at a lower level.”
Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., characterized the choice like this: "We either write our appropriations bills to be completely acceptable to the Senate Democrats and thereby enrage the Republican base, or we allow the Senate Democrats silently and stealthily to shut the government down and allow Republicans to take the full brunt of the blame for it. Those are our two options. That is not a paradigm that we can survive in."
Others defended the idea of sticking to the budget deal.
"If you want to do phony work and you want to go out to the floor and talk about a bunch of phony stuff that sounds nice and put it up on YouTube and go back to your district and say we're really the only ones fighting, then option one or two are your choice," Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., said. "If you actually want to do real work, then option three is your choice."
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers said it is "absolutely" easier to do his job if the budget resolution uses the agreed upon numbers for fiscal 2017. "We need certainty on a big number so we can march forth and do these chores that we got to do on an unprecedentedly early level," Rogers said, adding, "I don't think the Senate will vary from the agreed upon number." A decision on the budget numbers is not expected until Congress returns from a week-long recess the week of Feb. 22. House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price, R-Ga., said his panel is still planning to mark up the budget resolution that week.
"We'll get a budget," Price said. Asked what gives him that confidence, he said, "Because I have faith in my colleagues."
Whether that confidence is justified remains to be seen. Several other members were optimistic that they'd reach a resolution, but with no one budging from their positions, the path forward remains unclear.
Ryan's ability to be the unifying figure many members believe he can be and find a solution that won't further tear the conference apart could have a lasting impact on his speakership.
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