GOP’s 2016 Dilemma: Get Elected or Pass a Budget?

Senate Republicans are embarking on the path that leads to a fiscal 2017 budget resolution, though no one thinks it will be easy to pass the tax and spending framework in an election year.

After some question about what the Senate would do, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters at a GOP retreat last week that Republicans would try to pass another budget resolution this year.

“Well, we’re certainly committed to trying to pass a budget this year, no question about it,” the Kentucky Republican said. “I want to remind you four of the last five years under the Democratic majority, they didn’t do it.”

Some Republican senators — and some Democrats as well — argue it isn’t necessary to adopt a budget resolution this year because Congress already approved the topline appropriations limit for fiscal 2017 as part of the two-year budget deal (PL 114-74). Setting an enforceable topline is one of the main functions of a budget resolution.

Two years ago, then Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., skipped writing a fiscal 2015 budget resolution under circumstances similar to those today. In February 2014, Murray announced she would not write a fiscal 2015 budget resolution, which she said was unnecessary because the two-year budget deal in December 2013 (PL 113-67) had already set the topline for appropriators.

Getting a budget resolution adopted in either chamber will be more of a challenge this year, in part because a growing deficit will mean that in order to balance the budget in 10 years, even deeper spending cuts will be necessary than in last year’s GOP written budget resolution.

That in turn could imperil the chance to get enough Republican support to pass a budget in the Senate, where more than a few Republicans are facing tough re-election battles and three more — Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida — are running for president.

Cruz and Paul voted against the fiscal 2016 budget resolution last year while a third Republican did not vote. The plan passed 51-48.

“We will work with our members to get at least 51 to vote for that budget,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said at the GOP retreat. “I can’t guarantee anything, but I can tell you we’re going to give it our best.”

Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune of South Dakota said one reason to move a budget would be to allow for the fast-track reconciliation process, which Republicans recently used to send to President Barack Obama a bill (HR 3762) to repeal the 2010 health care law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152).

Senate Budget Chairman Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., is discussing the budget with fellow Republicans but has yet to lay out his plans.

One of the challenges of passing a budget in an election year is that elements of the fiscal plan are sure to be used against GOP incumbents by Democratic challengers. The Senate budget process also features a vote-a-rama, in which an unlimited number of amendments can be offered. Senators of both parties use amendments to get their opponents on record in ways that can be used against them in campaigns.

McConnell has repeatedly called for restoring “regular” order in the Senate, which would include adopting an annual budget resolution as well as passing the 12 appropriations bills individually and on time.

House Budget Chairman Tom Price, R-Ga., has vowed to write a fiscal 2017 budget resolution that would eliminate the deficit within a decade and he is also enthusiastic about the prospect of using budget reconciliation again. If the Senate skipped the process, it would open McConnell to charges that he is guilty of the same negligence that he accused Democrats of when they controlled the Senate.

It would be easier for the Senate to get away without a budget resolution this year on account of the 2015 budget deal, which raised the discretionary spending caps for fiscal years 2016 and 2017. The budget deal includes a provision that acts as a substitute for a budget resolution in the Senate by allowing for the enforcement of spending and revenue levels and committee allocations that are usually enforced as part of a budget resolution.

“Doesn’t the two-year thing cover this?” Budget Committee member Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said, referring to last year’s deal when asked about a budget resolution. He said while he would prefer to go through the process, “I don’t feel strongly. I’m open-minded to it.”

New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte, another committee member, has no problem with skipping a budget resolution this year.

“Obviously we’ll talk about it as a committee but it’s an academic exercise,” said Ayotte, who is seeking re-election this year. “I am very much for having a budget always, but we’ve set the numbers for two years.”

Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., favors doing a budget resolution but stopped short of saying it would be a big problem if the Senate does not do one. “I’m looking at it,” he said. David
Perdue, R-Ga., also supports a budget resolution.

Murray, who still sits on the committee though no longer as the top Democrat, took a pass on a chance to criticize Republicans if they were to skip a budget resolution. “We have a two-year budget agreement and it’s up to the Republicans on whether or not they want to write another budget,” she said.

Maine independent Angus King said it would be “useful” for the committee to work through a budget resolution but stopped short of saying whether the panel should take a vote on sending one to the floor.

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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