When it comes to this year’s budget debate, Republicans are united, and they are winning. At least for now.
On Thursday, House Republicans plan to pass a budget that reaches balance in ten years — decades sooner than previous efforts, and without additional tax increases — with near-unanimous GOP support. Shortly thereafter, they are likely to approve a continuing resolution that locks in federal spending at sequestration levels through September 30. President Obama will sign the continuing resolution, despite his objections and those of congressional Democrats. And Senate Democrats are poised to pass a budget for the first time in nearly four years, so the budget playing field has been leveled at last.
Not bad for a supposedly ragtag bunch — fresh off a demoralizing 2012 defeat, no less — that controls only a third of the federal government.
Even Tim Huelskamp (R., Kan.), a vocal critic of House leadership who was thrown off the budget committee last year after voting against Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R., Wis.) proposal, concedes that conservatives “are making progress” in moving the GOP conference to the right. He said he’d be a yes this time around.
Perhaps most surprisingly, this progress has all come more or less according to plan, part of a long-term strategy that was hatched months ago at the GOP conference retreat in Williamsburg, Va., where members agreed to postpone a fight over the debt ceiling until after a series of smaller battles — over sequestration, the continuing resolution, and the congressional budget — could be fought. As a result of that agreement, which was crafted by a coalition of leading conservatives, Senate Democrats were forced to pass a budget resolution, and House leadership presented a balanced budget.
Representative Mick Mulvaney (R., S.C.) noted that although conservatives “took some heat” for agreeing to delay the debt-ceiling fight, the decision has paid off. “We did it to have the exact debate that we are having right now,” he said. “The Senate was forced to pass a budget, and now we’re having a discussion on a level playing field.”
Republicans are confident the American people will prefer their vision to the one offered by Senate Democrats, which the Washington Post recently described as “complacent.” When the latter proposal was brought to the House floor for a vote on Wednesday, 35 Democrats voted no. “Ours balances and doesn’t raise taxes. Theirs raises taxes and never balances,” Mulvaney said. “You could not have a better and sharper contrast.” Recent polling suggests voters may be inclined to agree.
The GOP’s unity on the Ryan budget notwithstanding, there is a sizeable faction that would prefer an even more aggressive approach. The conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC) introduced a budget that would reach balance in four years, and enact far more aggressive reforms to entitlement programs. That budget failed in the House on Wednesday; Republicans split 119–120 after nearly every Democrat voted “present,” a cagey move that forced more GOP members to vote no.
Mulvaney was quick to dismiss the notion that the competing proposals were a sign of division within the party. “We offer the RSC budget, and conservatives vote for it, other folks don’t, then we rally around the committee budget. That’s how it works,” he said, noting that House Democrats offered multiple budget proposals as well. “I don’t think just because you offer alternative budgets, slightly alternative visions, different ideas, that represents a schism.”
The conservative activist group Heritage Action announced a “key vote” on the RSC budget, and said it would give additional scrutiny to those who opposed it, but supported the Ryan budget.
Conservatives at the Wednesday forum appeared reasonably satisfied with the House leadership’s handling of the budget debate so far. “They have been listening to conservatives, they have been talking to us more,” said Representative Raul Labrador (R., Idaho). House leaders have been “doing a great job,” Jordan said. “We just want to politely encourage them to keep doing it.”
“Conservatives have worked with leadership to put forth a plan that we’re actually following to the letter, and I think the results are already showing,” said Representative Mark Meadows (R., N.C.). “But we’ve got to continue to apply the pressure.”
Having already navigated, with reasonable success, the sequester, the continuing resolution, and now the budget, House Republicans will face perhaps their most difficult challenge when the government reaches the debt limit, likely sometime in July. Conservatives will not be satisfied to simply vote for the Ryan budget and move on; they want to see some of its major elements enacted into law.
“Some people in the conference believe that the plan is just to pass the Paul Ryan budget, and once we pass the Paul Ryan budget, then we have met all of all of our goals,” Labrador said. “My goal is not to pass a meaningless document by itself, it’s to actually implement the policies that will get us to balance in ten years.”
“This is going to be where the rubber meets the road,” Huelskamp said. “Are we going to simply talk about it, or are we going to pass some law and implement these changes?”
Representative Jeff Duncan (R., S.C.) spoke about the importance of incremental victories — “taking and holding ground” — and cited the sequestration cuts, which were subsequently locked in by the continuing resolution. Republicans would like to see that dynamic continue with the debt ceiling, although they have yet to hash out a coherent strategy or settle on an asking price. Tax reform, entitlement reform, additional spending cuts, and a repeal of the administration’s contraceptive mandate are items under discussion. House leaders are considering a number of different options and are wary of potential conflicts with conservative members.
Some conservatives are upset that the House leaders did not use the continuing resolution to try to defund Obamacare, although it is unclear why Senate Democrats, much less President Obama, would ever approve such a measure. Huelskamp said he is working with leadership to secure another House vote to fully repeal the health-care law, and is adamant that Obamacare be on the table during the debt-ceiling fight. “I don’t see how you can balance the budget in ten years if you continue to fund the largest government expansion in the history of this country,” he said.
But some Republicans will be wary of risking an economic downturn, and another downgrade of the nation’s credit rating, over a law that is already in place. “Even people who don’t like Obamacare don’t think that’s a good idea,” said one GOP aide. Even conservative members are beginning to concede that tax reform, entitlement reform, or additional spending cuts will provide better political ground for the GOP to fight over.
Republicans acknowledge that the next several months will be challenging, and their unity is sure to be tested. But in the meantime, they say, it is important to reflect on the progress they’ve already made. Jordan said people “would have laughed at” the idea that three months into this Congress, sequestration would have taken effect, and the White House and Senate Democrats would essentially agree to lower spending levels ($85 billion in cuts) for the remainder of the year. Now that that’s happened, one reporter asked, should conservatives view that as a positive outcome? “Heck yeah,” Jordan said.
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review.