‘It would be a shame, but the sky won’t fall if we don’t do a budget.”
Those were Speaker Paul Ryan’s words as he kicked off Friday morning’s closed-door meeting of the Republican conference, according to a source in the room. The sky may not literally fall, of course, if Republicans can’t cobble together a budget by the beginning of March. But as Ryan reiterated this morning, it would eradicate any chance of passing all twelve appropriations bills through regular order, forcing the House into a repeat of the omnibus spending negotiations that conservatives — and Ryan himself — have long sought to avoid.
But this morning’s conference meeting brought some movement to a debate that until now had largely centered on smaller sessions in which Ryan listened dutifully to members’ concerns: A handful of conservatives left the meeting promising to consider backing off demands for a lower topline number, perhaps in favor of a compromise put forth by Freedom Caucus member Andy Harris, which would pair leadership’s topline spending number with substantial entitlement cuts embedded within the budget.
The current dilemma is this: a large swath of conservatives from both the Freedom Caucus and the Republican Study Committee are spooked by the thought of passing a budget that adheres to the $1.07 trillion spending level agreed upon by President Obama and then-Speaker John Boehner in October. Their reasoning is both fiscal and political. A recent CBO report predicted that the Obama/Boehner deal would further balloon the nation’s already-sizeable debt. And for those members in heavily red districts, the backlash for supporting such a spending expansion — especially as conservative groups such as Heritage Action implore them to reject it — could be severe.
Part of the increased movement toward compromise this morning was Ryan’s doing. Pointing to an array of charts and graphs on the screen behind him, the speaker mounted his argument that the benefits of the deal far outweighed its costs. The first screen showed spending levels for fiscal year 2016: $1.067 trillion. The next one showed the $1.07 trillion figure for 2017. He explained that $2.97 billion of the $3 billion increase would go toward national defense, leaving a mere $40 million increase in non-defense spending.
“Are House Republicans willing to give up appropriations bills, a balanced budget, entitlement reform, and reconciliation for $40 million?” Ryan then asked, according to the source.
“It was a compelling case,” says Ohio representative Bob Gibbs after the conference. “I didn’t realize that $2.97 billion was going to defense.”
Passing a budget could very well be the test that Ryan’s speakership has been driving toward since its inception.
Ryan then turned the discussion over to the members. Harris took the microphone and laid out the vision that many conservatives increasingly believe could get them to support the October framework, giving leadership the 218 votes it needs to pass the budget: While maintaining that topline figure, Republicans could embed entitlement cuts into the budget, and strip out that spending in each appropriations bill.
“People have always been focused on the wrong number in this debate,” says Budget Committee member Tom Cole. “The real problem is entitlement reform. I respect folks that are worried about spending money. I consider myself a deficit hawk. But we did make a deal.”
And according to both Gibbs and a leadership member inside the room, Harris’s pitch generated excitement. “It seems to be the best chance at compromise,” the member says.
“The quandary is the path toward getting 218 votes on the floor. It’s an acknowledged problem,” Harris says in a phone interview after the conference. “I think this plan alleviates the problem.” He says that he’s spent the past two days lobbying members to support the idea, and that it’s gained “wide acceptance” within the conference.
Various smaller political problems have already been labeled Ryan’s “first big test” as speaker. But when it comes to carrying out the agenda he’s made his calling card, and prioritizing regular order in the House, passing a budget could very well be the test that his speakership has been driving toward since its inception.
Harris’s proposal is charting a clearer pathway toward passing that test, but there is still aggressive pressure from other conservatives to lower the topline figure altogether, reverting to spending levels established by the 2011 sequester. Indeed, Freedom Caucus leaders Jim Jordan, Mick Mulvaney, Mark Meadows, and Raul Labrador continue to insist that, as Jordan puts it, “The answer is really simple: write a Republican budget.”
#share#The group rejects the argument that adhering to the Obama/Boehner deal is the only way to move their appropriations bills into the Senate. “For the Ryan-Murray budget deal, I remember Hal Rogers going around and saying the appropriations process can finally work. And yet we have not passed a single appropriations bill out of Congress since I got here,” Mulvaney says. “So when we’re told, ‘Oh, in order for the appropriations process to work, boys, you have to vote for this thing,’ we’re like, ‘Look, you told us that in Ryan-Murray, and the Senate lied to us.
“So we’re not going to get lied to again. That’s not a selling point. Because we don’t believe you.”
They are careful to note, however, that blame for the impasse doesn’t fall on Ryan, but rather the broader conference, including caucuses such as the Tuesday Group, whose leader, Charlie Dent, has pledged that his group won’t vote for a return to sequestration levels. “The issue is that the rest of the conference just isn’t as fiscally conservative as this group,” Labrador says.
Meadows says that the group is still looking for “something of value” that they could justify as a “trade-off” for voting on the higher number, but they haven’t reached an official consensus on what that something would be.
The four lawmakers reiterate that their ultimate goal aligns with leadership’s: produce a budget, whatever shape it may take.
But the influence of some Freedom Caucus members adamantly opposed to the higher spending levels, coupled with pressure from outside conservative groups, could continue to make that task difficult: If a large swath of conservative members votes against leadership’s budget, it would inevitably cause several others outside the group to do so as well, according to one member who is not in the Freedom Caucus and holds a leadership post. “No one wants to go home to their district and be lambasted for not standing with other conservatives in the conference,” says the member. “I think the Freedom Caucus has a lot more leverage than leadership realizes.”
What’s more, both the Heritage Foundation and its political arm, Heritage Action, are beseeching members to oppose the deal. In a new development this week, the Heritage Foundation is preparing to drop its own budget proposal with a topline figure of $990 billion that would balance in seven years, according to Paul Winfree, executive director of the think tank’s Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Studies. And that’s a real factor, as Heritage’s political arm maintains a vote-scoring operation that holds sway with many conservative voters when it comes time to reelect their representatives.
#related#None of this is news to Ryan, and according to several GOP leadership aides, it’s the reason a large swath of his meetings this week have been with small groups of conservatives, rather than the whole conference. On Tuesday evening in the Capitol, he huddled with a handful of rank-and-file members — including freshman Budget Committee member Gary Palmer and anti-poverty ally Mark Walker — to pitch his case for leadership’s budget. “It was well received,” says an aide to one member present at the meeting. “The speaker knows that in order to get the votes he needs, he’s going to have to make more personal appeals, and he’s doing that.”
The House is in recess for the next week, during which time budget talk will be largely limited to one-on-one conversations between members. The overwhelming sentiment pouring out of this morning’s conference was that an agreement is likely to be struck the week of the 22nd. And even that may be pushing it: right now, the Budget Committee is sticking to its preset goal of a February 25th markup.
Getting there continues to be no easy climb: According to interviews with nearly a dozen members from all factions of the Republican conference, the current budget debate is exposing ideological fissures between leadership and conservatives in a way that no event in Ryan’s speakership has thus far. But of those members, not a single one says they believe that, at the end of the day, the House won’t pass a budget. And with Harris’s proposal beginning to catch on among conservatives, that seems like a safer bet than it did a few days ago.
Says one GOP leadership source: “They will pass one come hell or high water, but it may take both hell and high water.”
— Elaina Plott is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.