Politics

House Budget Being Drafted Despite Nearly Insurmountable Obstacles

Topline spending levels, no path to reconciliation among reasons lawmakers to oppose

House Budget Chairman Steve Womack is writing a fiscal 2019 budget resolution despite major obstacles to passing it. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Obstacles to House Republicans passing a fiscal 2019 budget resolution appear insurmountable and have some members questioning why the Budget Committee is even planning to write one. 

Exactly half of the 22 Republicans on the Budget panel — more than enough to block a partisan budget resolution — voted against last week’s budget deal that set fiscal 2019 topline spending levels of $647 billion for defense and $597 billion for nondefense. Under the agreement, House and Senate leaders committed to those topline numbers if their chambers decide to advance fiscal 2019 budget resolutions.

If at least four Budget members reversed course and backed the higher spending levels in order to help the committee report out a budget resolution, the measure would likely still face opposition from a majority of the 67 House Republicans who voted against the budget deal. Without Democratic support, which GOP budget resolutions never get, it would take only 23 Republicans to stop it from passing on the floor.

As if those obstacles weren’t big enough, the Senate is not expected to pass a budget this year because leaders have ruled out using the reconciliation process to advance GOP priorities with their slim 51-seat majority.

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Without the reconciliation incentive, the House would likely have not been able to pass budget resolutions for fiscal years 2017 or 2018 because of similar opposition to topline spending levels agreed to in a 2015 budget deal.

For fiscal 2017, the House passed only a shell budget to set up the reconciliation process for the health care overhaul, which collapsed in the Senate.

For fiscal 2018, the House passed a regular budget resolution with reconciliation instructions for the tax overhaul and $203 billion in mandatory spending cuts, but the latter was dropped in the final version amid Senate objections.

Despite all the odds stacked up against him, new House Budget Chairman Steve Womack said he intends to produce a fiscal 2019 budge resolution and try to advance it out of his committee. 

“The passage of the Bipartisan budget act in no way precludes us from passing a budget resolution with reconciliation instructions,” the Arkansas Republican said in a statement on the budget deal. “It simply would put into place guardrails necessary for the Committee to do its work. Writing a budget is a fundamental responsibility of Congress, and as Chairman of the House Budget Committee, I am wholly committed to fulfilling that duty.”

Womack only offering a commitment to doing a budget rather than stronger language might suggest he is unsure about its prospects, but Budget spokeswoman Sarah Corley said the chairman is “confident members can and will advance a budget out of committee.”

Senate Budget Chairman Michael B. Enzi is also drafting a budget resolution he expects his committee to mark up, but he said it would likely not include reconciliation instructions. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is unlikely to bring it to the floor since it’s a midterm election year. The chamber’s budget vote-a-rama process allows for open amendments and Democrats would use that opportunity to force messaging votes.

‘Why?’

Some members are questioning why the House should even bother with a budget.

“This year, we have a topline number. Apparently there’s no desire to do reconciliation in the Senate,” Rep. Charlie Dent said. “Why else would you do a budget?”

The Pennsylvania Republican said that beyond setting topline spending numbers for the fiscal year and a reconciliation process for advancing actual binding legislation, budget resolutions are all about politics and messaging.

“In fact, I’ve always felt that the budget process here was an exercise in confederate money. It’s not real,” added Dent, a co-chairman of the centrist Tuesday Group. “Put me down as one who believes that we waste a hell of a lot of time on passing budgets that don’t mean anything.”

On the opposite end of the GOP political spectrum, Rep. Mark Meadows, chairman of the hard-line conservative Freedom Caucus, was raising the same question.

“Why do it?” the North Carolina Republican said. “There’s no reason to do a budget at this point if the Senate is not going to do one.”

Conservatives will oppose the budget given the topline spending levels and the fact that there is no path to enacting “huge mandatory spending cuts” through reconciliation, Meadows warned.

The Budget panel is planning to include reconciliation instructions calling for an as yet unspecified amount of mandatory savings, but that’s unlikely to be enough to entice many members with the Senate not on board.

“Without reconciliation, it would be really tough to vote for that spending level,” said Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, a former Freedom Caucus chairman, noting that was the GOP’s best shot at enacting a welfare overhaul this year.

Even some Budget Committee members were questioning the purpose of going through the annual exercise this year.

“Which part of it is relevant?” Rep. Dave Brat said.

While the Virginia Republican acknowledged that putting together a budget could serve an audit function, he questioned why the panel should waste staff time drafting something that’s not going anywhere.

“Nothing we do is going to go through, and we know it ahead of time,” the Freedom Caucus member said.

Corley provided this reason when asked for Womack’s response: “It is the responsibility of lawmakers to write and pass a budget each fiscal year.”

‘Exceedingly difficult’

Even Budget Committee members who supported the deal on the toplines — and are likely to back any resolution the panel puts together — acknowledged that it will be especially difficult to get a budget through the House this year. 

“It’s going to be a challenge. Let’s just say my good friend [Diane] Black knew when to leave,” Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole said, referring to Womack’s predecessor who gave up the Budget gavel to focus on her campaign for Tennessee governor.

“It is going to be exceedingly difficult to, I think, pass a budget out of committee that can pass the floor,” Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart said, but he qualified that Womack is “astute” and has a good read on the GOP conference. 

The Senate not intending to pass a budget makes it more difficult for the House to pass one, Rep. Bill Johnson acknowledged. 

“I won’t say it’s undoable, but it’s going to be a challenge to get members to support,” the Ohio Republican said. “But I think it’s fundamental to our reason for being here. We’ve got to pass a budget.” 

Fellow Ohio Rep. James B. Renacci, who voted against the budget deal because of concerns over the amount of spending, said he still thinks it is important to do one and that the committee is going to try to write one that balances.

“The budget is a visionary product, and we’re going to continue to put our vision out there,” he said. 

The Republican Study Committee is also planning to continue its tradition of putting together an annual budget that is meant to be a more conservative alternative to the Budget panel product.

“I’ve asked for that to be legitimate balance,” RSC Chairman Mark Walker said, noting that with a higher deficit, it might take 12 or 13 years to do so, rather than the traditional 10-year budget window that Republicans have typically used to propose balanced budget plans.

The North Carolina Republican, who voted against the budget deal because of its contribution to the deficit, acknowledged that getting a budget through the House is going to be “very difficult” but that Congress has a constitutional duty to try.

For some Republicans, the budget deal’s impact on the deficit may be more reason for the House to do a budget.

“That doesn’t mean that we have reached a point where Republicans are no longer concerned about deficit management, reducing the national debt and controlling spending, because we absolutely are,” Johnson said. “And I think you’re going to see that in our budget process this year.”

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