House Republicans struggle on spending plan

The fractious House Republican conference is struggling to unite behind a plan to pass budget and spending bills, divided over policy priorities as well as basic questions of process.

Lawmakers emerged from a closed-door meeting Wednesday morning with virtually no consensus on how to proceed. And disagreements are beginning to fester, pitting chairman against chairman and even panel members against one another.

“It was all over the board,” said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, upon exiting the meeting.

The stalemate — which centers on how much to spend on defense as well as whether to use their Republican majority to cut mandatory programs like food stamps — has the potential to jam the GOP agenda. If Republicans don’t decide on a path forward soon, they may not be able to pass a budget at all.

The budget has been grounded for months amid internal House spending spats and the Trump administration’s own delay in writing a budget.

Eager to push ahead, House budget writers tentatively agreed in a separate meeting Wednesday afternoon to advance a budget resolution that takes a middle-of-the-road approach to both defense spending and the mandatory cuts. It would also trim domestic spending by several billion dollars.

Members are planning for a Budget Committee vote on Wednesday, though they’re waiting approval from GOP leadership. Lawmakers are also still fearful that their budget could fail to make it to the floor for the second year in a row.

Should that happen, GOP leaders can say goodbye to the fast-tracking budget tool they need to pass tax reform, which would be a huge blow to Capitol Hill Republicans and the White House.

Speaking to reporters as she exited the meeting, House Budget Committee Chairwoman Diane Black (R-Tenn.) declined to say whether she still hoped to pass the budget before the July Fourth recess, or if she thought the House GOP caucus was inching toward consensus.

“Of course I want to be able to mark up as soon as we’re ready. I’m continuing to make good progress,” Black said. “We are making progress.”

That progress was less than evident Wednesday, however. While Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) likes to say Republicans are having a “family conversation” about how to move forward on major issues, the House Republican conference is more akin to an estranged family than one that chats over dinner each night.

During the Wednesday conference meeting, defense hawks stood up to say they want higher spending levels for the Pentagon, and warned about the potential harm to military readiness without a massive spending bump. Some even suggested they’d haul in Defense Secretary James Mattis if necessary to teach the conference a lesson in protecting the nation.

House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) has been making the case for a $640 billion Pentagon budget, well above President Donald Trump’s $603 billion budget proposal and substantially higher than the current $549 billion defense spending cap.

Thornberry’s committee is set to mark up its annual defense policy legislation at the subcommittee level this week and at the full committee next week. While House Armed Services has been mum on the total amount of spending it will outline in its must-pass bill, observers have said they expect Thornberry to press ahead at the $640 billion level.

Budget writers have called for $621 billion for defense, a compromise number they believe is sufficient, and they’re peeved that defense hawks don’t appear to be accepting that middle-ground number.

Some lawmakers and aides, however, say defense hawks usually win the battle between frugality and security — and they’re predicting Thornberry and his crew will again be victorious.

"I think people understand the need for a strong national defense, and I think what we need to talk about is what capabilities we either gain or give up… rather than just talking numbers,” said Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), who sits on Armed Services.

Exiting Wednesday’s meeting, Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who also sits on the defense panel, said “I think everybody’s pro-$640 [billion], but they’re gonna want things in exchange for that."

But it’s the thing conservatives want in exchange that’s become another sticking point: Black has been advocating for hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of cuts to mandatory programs in her budget, and hard-liners who love that idea say they could potentially support higher defense numbers if welfare programs are reformed and reduced.

But some chairmen, including Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas), have balked at the idea of making cuts to programs in their purview. Black has lowered her proposed cuts to mandatory programs from $400 billion to $150 billion, but she’s still getting pushback.

Asked about mandatory cuts under Agriculture, which would likely mean reductions to food stamps and farm subsidies, Conaway seemed peeved that details of Black’s budget had already made it to the press.

“I’m going to continue to talk to the Budget Committee to try to get her reasonable accommodation of what they’re trying to get done,” he said. “Once they put out an official statement, I’ll respond officially, but this leaking of information to try to run [ideas] up the flag pole is not the best way to run” business.

Even if the conference can hash out an agreement on defense numbers and mandatory cuts, they’ll face divisions on the process, which was the main focus of the Wednesday meeting. In fact, GOP lawmakers said they were surprised by how little talk there actually was about budget numbers, given how little time members have to act.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) presented several scenarios to pass appropriations bills through the House, with the aim of averting a dreaded stopgap bill this fall. All would involve bundling at least some spending bills, meaning that lawmakers have officially ditched the idea of “regular order.”

Some Republicans prefer passing a massive, partisan spending bill in July even if it will never clear the Senate where Democratic votes would be needed. That idea, from Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.), is intended to give the rank and file more input, but other appropriators and staff are dreading the proposal and hoping leadership kills it quickly.

There’s concern about time: can they really write a GOP spending bill in five weeks before the August recess? That timeline would give appropriators only about seven working days to file the text and get it to the floor in July.

Some, like appropriator Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), said they didn’t see the point since it would never become law.

“Some of the other options I consider to be a fake process that would lead to fake bills,” Dent said.

Multiple lawmakers said they expect to decide on a path forward at the next House GOP meeting on Friday morning. “Hopefully at that time, we’ll have some reading on a consensus,” said Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), the former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Rogers said there’s a “strong sentiment to at least get some of the work done before the August break.” That, for now, appears to be where the consensus ends.

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