House Republican leaders, facing a serious time crunch this fall, are already plotting ways to avoid a government shutdown at the end of September — a real possibility given partisan divisions over spending priorities.
Speaker Paul Ryan in a closed-door GOP conference meeting Thursday morning laid out the legislative calendar, showing lawmakers they’re approximately four months behind schedule in the appropriations process for 2018, in part because President Donald Trump’s budget landed later than usual.
The early discussion about salvaging the annual spending process underscores how much Trump, Ryan and other party leaders are struggling to govern now that they run Washington.
House Republicans can’t agree on their own budget blueprint for next year, clashing internally over cuts to entitlement programs and safety net initiatives such as food stamps and housing aid, all while trying to create space for tax reform and a big defense spending increase. In addition, they still have to find money for Trump’s priorities, including the hugely controversial border wall between the United States and Mexico.
Congress needs to pass a funding bill by Sept. 30 to keep the lights on at federal agencies. Yet with lawmakers out for the August recess, they only have 43 legislative days left to pass appropriations bills before they hit that deadline. Obamacare repeal efforts are likely to suck up much of that time in the Senate. Tax reform — or even a tax-cut package — would also take up more time and energy.
Aware of the looming deadline, Ryan raised the possibility of clumping appropriations bills together in an omnibus to save time. Passing a continuing resolution, that essentially maintains current spending levels and priorities in order to keep the government open, was also discussed.
The idea, GOP insiders say, was to manage expectations of what’s possible and what’s not. Republicans for years have vowed to bring back "regular order" if they were in charge, with Congress debating and passing 12 separate spending bills each year. But even having the White House and Congress is not enough for Republicans. Regular order, for now, will remain a memory from a bygone era.
“We talked about how we might move forward on appropriations at this juncture… Putting all the appropriations together in one package is one option,” said Rep Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee. “I think certainly, when you look at the calendar, you’ve got to say: It’s crunch time, and of course trying to do all these appropriations bills in that short period of time” would be difficult.
Under the Budget Control Act, Republicans in fiscal 2018 face $5 billion in across-the-board cuts to defense and non-defense programs unless they take action. Trump wants to increase defense spending and request new money to build a border wall with Mexico. That, however, would require Congress to raise spending caps put in place years ago.
In order to do that, Republicans would need the support of at least eight Democrats in the Senate, which is extremely unlikely at this point. Democrats typically demand dollar-for-dollar funding boosts for non-defense programs, such as transportation or housing, in order to support defense increases. They’ve also sworn to never support funding for Trump’s wall, something the White House wants to push for in earnest this fall — even at the risk of a shutdown fight.
During Thursday’s House GOP conference meeting, Republicans harped on Senate rules requiring 60 votes for passage instead of a simple majority. They discussed the possibility of convincing Senate Republicans to go nuclear on spending bills, as they did to confirm Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch — though that’s unlikely at best.
“We do our appropriations in the House… then, it goes over to the Senate and they say, ‘No, we have to work with Democrats,’” said Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), who often rants about Senate rules and wants Senate Republicans to eliminate the filibuster. “What will come out of this process is going to be a significantly, in large part, a Democrat omnibus … We don’t seem to have the courage to face the real problem head on.”
Republicans, however, can’t point to Democrats for all their budget problems: The conference faces a critical moment right now over how far they go in their own budget. Conservatives want drastically lower spending and are pushing GOP leaders to use reconciliation to cut safety-net programs. But that idea is sure to repel moderate Republicans, putting GOP leaders in the awkward situation of trying to find a way to garner 216 votes for passage. In the past, they’ve had to turn to Democrats to pass spending bills.
Much is at stake. If Republicans don’t agree on a blueprint, they will never get to tax reform. That’s because only after passing the budget can they unlock the fast-tracking tool known as reconciliation that allows them to pass tax reform without a single Democratic vote in the Senate.
When asked when — and if — House Republicans would unveil their own budget, Budget Committee Chairwoman Diane Black (R-Tenn.) was non-committal.
"We’re working on it, and we’ll let you know when we get to that point," Black said. "We’re going to bring it out as soon as we get consensus and get all of our people together."
And Black faithfully repeated that line several time no matter what question she was asked about the budget. "That’s all I’m gonna give you, that we’re working on it," Black said. GOP insiders expect the budget to be released in June.
There isn’t much time to deliberate.
While the budget process typically starts in February, after the president releases his budget, Trump waited until the end of May to release the details of his fiscal blueprint. Even though the Trump budget — with huge spending cuts to domestic problems, big tax cuts and some fuzzy math to make it balance — was dead on arrival, the delay in sending it to Capitol Hill set lawmakers back, all while the issues dividing the Republican Conference are just becoming tougher and tougher.
"People know that we have an abbreviated timeframe for the appropriations process," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who sits on both the Appropriations and Budget panels.
Cole said Appropriations Committee Republicans met privately on Wednesday night to discuss the situation, but he acknowledged GOP lawmakers will miss the Sept. 30 deadline for passing spending bills.
"We’re prepared to work Saturdays, whatever we need to do," Cole said. "We can get the bills ready to get all 12 bills out of committee. The real question is do you have the time to do them on the floor? Probably not. So you’re gonna have ‘minibuses’ or an omnibus. I think there’s just probably not the time given health care, given tax reform and everything else we’ve gotta get done."
Kentucky Rep. John Yarmuth, top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, says the GOP infighting over spending priorities is par for the course.
"We’ve got a Republican majority that’s having a hard time governing," Yarmuth said. "We saw it on health care. It doesn’t surprise that’s it happening on the budget as well."
Yarmuth said his aides tried on Thursday to find out from their GOP counterparts whether a budget would be marked up in June.
"They clearly are undecided about what they’re going to do," Yarmuth added.