Arkansas Republican Steve Womack is poised to be the next House Budget Committee chairman after the Republican Steering Committee Tuesday evening recommended him over two other candidates for the post.
The Steering Committee’s choice of Womack over Reps. Rob Woodall of Georgia and Bill Johnson of Ohio still needs to be ratified by the full House Republican Conference before it becomes official, but the conference traditionally accepts the Steering panel’s recommendations. The ratification will occur during the next conference meeting, which will either be this Thursday or next Wednesday.
Womack will become the third Budget chairman in as many years. He replaces Rep. Diane Black, who is giving up the Budget gavel to focus on her run for governor of Tennessee.
Black chaired the panel for roughly a year, replacing Georgia’s Tom Price, who became Health and Human Services secretary but has since resigned. Price was chairman for just two years, succeeding Paul D. Ryan, who took the gavel of Ways and Means in 2015 before becoming speaker.
Womack is not a member of any of the three major GOP caucuses but he’s developed relationships across the conference through his work on the whip team and the Appropriations Committee. He said in an interview last week that he is a part of Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s support network.
While Congress is still debating how to fund the government for the remainder of fiscal 2018, the fiscal 2019 budget season is soon approaching.
Womack will lead the panel over hearings on the Trump administration’s fiscal 2019 budget request, expected to be submitted to Congress sometime in February, and the crafting of a House Republican budget resolution.
The GOP conference has struggled to pass budget resolutions the past two years. In fiscal 2017, the House only passed a “shell” budget with reconciliation instructions for repealing and replacing the health care law. That reconciliation measure failed in the Senate.
In fiscal 2018, House Republicans passed a full budget resolution with reconciliation instructions for rewriting the tax code and cutting $203 billion in mandatory spending, but only after months of negotiations. The House ultimately accepted the Senate budget, without instructions for mandatory spending cuts, as the final reconciled budget needed to advance the tax overhaul through the budget reconciliation process.
Fiscal 2019 budget negotiations will likely prove even more difficult as Republicans remain divided over topline spending levels and the breadth of mandatory spending cuts. An expected two-year budget deal to raise the fiscal 2018 and 2019 sequestration spending caps for defense and nondefense spending could doom any chances of conservative fiscal hawks supporting the budget.
“I go in with no illusions that it will be easy,” Womack said. “It will be difficult, and perhaps unpleasant at times.”
One of the thorniest issues Womack will have to navigate is whether to use the budget reconciliation process for fiscal 2019 to try to advance partisan legislation.
House Republicans have talked about using reconciliation, which allows for a simple majority vote in the Senate, to overhaul entitlement programs, but Senate GOP leaders have balked at the idea given their slim majority in the upper chamber.
Womack and House Republicans are unlikely to let Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s positioning impact their agenda.
“It is obvious that Sen. McConnell has different ideas about what needs to happen immediately,” Womack said. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.”
As speaker, Ryan has continued to talk about entitlements as part of the 2018 agenda, specifically overhauling welfare programs.
“We have people who are sidelined in society that need to get out of poverty and into the workforce,” Ryan said Saturday after a retreat with President Donald Trump and congressional leaders at Camp David. “So we want to focus on making sure that we can close that skills gap, that opportunity gap, so that everyone can get the kind of life and the career that they can get in this country — tap their potential.”
President Donald Trump supports the idea of a welfare overhaul but he signaled Saturday that it can’t be a partisan effort.
“We're looking at aspects of it,” he said. “It's a subject that's very dear to our heart. We'll try and do something in a bipartisan way, otherwise we'll be holding it for a little bit later. But we'll be looking to do that very much in a bipartisan way, if we can.”
Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker, one of the conservatives who’s been pushing for entitlement changes like attaching work requirements to benefits, has said he “would love” for a welfare overhaul to be bipartisan but said he’s not sure that’s realistic, especially this close to the midterm elections.
“If we can’t get bipartisan support on a piece of legislation that actually returns more money sure to lower- and middle-income families,” he said of the GOP tax overhaul, “it’s going to make it challenging to get any kind of bipartisan support.”