Politics

Budget Battle Opening Salvo Still Stalled

House GOP not focused on endgame as much as negotiating marker

House Budget Chairwoman Diane Black is moving forward with a budget resolution that does not reflect what can be agreed to in the Senate. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Republicans have spent a month arguing over key pieces of a budget resolution that faces little chance of passage in the Senate. But they are focused less on the endgame than staking out their own position.

House members frequently view legislation they have passed as a marker for their position heading into bicameral negotiations.

“We have to do our job here. I’ve always believed that. … Each body does their work,” House Budget Chairwoman Diane Black said when asked recently if the House and Senate were on the same page regarding a budget resolution and using the reconciliation process to cut mandatory spending.

The utility of setting a marker has been slightly undermined by the House’s struggles to agree on such an opening negotiating position. 

Black has been working with authorizing committee chairmen to identify ways to cut around $200 billion in mandatory spending so she can include reconciliation instructions in the budget asking those committees to reach that deficit reduction target. But the Tennessee Republican is facing resistance from conservatives pushing for more than $200 billion in cuts and moderates who believe the mandatory savings target could complicate the effort to rewrite the tax code through reconciliation.

Selling the mandatory savings target appears to be the last major hurdle to House Republicans moving forward on a budget. The Budget Committee had initially planned on marking up a resolution this week but will hold off until next week.

House Republicans have generally agreed to topline spending numbers of $621.5 billion for defense and $511 for nondefense discretionary, but the acceptance of those numbers remains tied to the mandatory savings cuts.

Senate needs to agree

Both decisions will ultimately require agreements with the Senate. The sequester caps of $549 billion for defense and $516 for nondefense discretionary spending cannot be raised without a statutory change to the Budget Control Act, which would require Democratic votes in the Senate.

And Senate Republicans will need to adopt a budget resolution with reconciliation instructions for mandatory savings and a tax overhaul and reconcile it with the House plan to create a legislative process for those priorities to move forward.

Black said she has weekly conversations with Senate Budget Chairman Michael B. Enzi but declined to characterize them. She would not say whether the Senate was interested in pursuing mandatory savings cuts through reconciliation, but she said the House and Senate can resolve any differences in their budget resolutions in conference committee.

Enzi said Monday he wouldn’t discuss details of his budget until he was ready to present one. 

“Everything is possible until then,” the Wyoming Republican said.

While there isn’t a lot of time on the calendar for the chambers to pass different budget resolutions and go to conference, Black said Congress can move quickly when needed.

“We can always make the time. There’s an opportunity there that if we don’t get our work done, we can stay during those times when we … originally were supposed to not be here,” she added, seemingly referring to the August recess.

The need for Senate cooperation does have some GOP members worried about the House strategy to just focus on what they want and ignore the dynamics of the other chamber.

“That is a concern that I have,” New York Rep. Tom Reed said. “And I would hope all members are looking three steps ahead.”

Bicameral negotiations?

Reed, a member of the moderate Tuesday Group and co-chairman of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, said his preference is that the House and Senate negotiate topline spending numbers and the reconciliation instructions before passing separate budget resolutions.

“I’m probably in the minority position on this judgement call,” he said.

Reed’s position is shared by some other moderate Republicans, such as Tuesday Group Co-Chairman Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, as well as most appropriators. But generally speaking, they are in the minority. GOP leaders in both chambers have made no apparent overtures toward negotiating a bipartisan budget deal.

“We have all these battles internally … as opposed to real battles because ultimately, we’re going to have to have an agreement with the Senate,” said Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, an appropriator and Tuesday Group member.

Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., said some House members are concerned about what the Senate will or won’t do in regard to a budget but that he does not believe the House should be prenegotiating with their colleagues across the Capitol.

“No. If we did that, we’d never get anything done,” Collins said. “I think we have a job to do, and I think the speaker’s said it: We do our job, then they have their job to do, then there’s a process for bringing it all together.”

Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas, agreed: “We’ve got to lay a marker down. We’re still the House. We still have a seat at the table. We need to lay down what our position is.”

But for other members, the marker approach just raises false expectations, setting up members and their constituents for disappointment in the endgame.  

“What I hate doing over here … to members like myself and to me personally, is you vote for something, it goes to the Senate and it comes back and it’s drastically different than what you voted on,” Reed said. “And you’re on the record and it looks like you’re either caving or you’re flip-flopping on issues.”

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