WASHINGTON -- It’s becoming a common story for House Republicans when faced with a fiscal fight: Propose a solution, try to get as many members on board and keep their fingers crossed it doesn’t go down in flames. Once again, House Speaker John Boehner will face the same problem as his chamber tries in the next two weeks to pass a budget plan.
He risks facing opposition from multiple corners of his caucus. Warhawks are likely to be unhappy the budget doesn't increase the Pentagon’s spending levels enough and essentially generates a slush fund for the Defense Department to get around existing spending limits. Far-right conservatives -- who seem to always find something to be unhappy about -- could find the bill doesn’t cut enough entitlement programs or takes too long to get balanced. And moderates have started making noise that some cuts could be too deep, even impossible to live with.
Democrats are unlikely to provide any votes at all to Boehner, arguing that the GOP bill goes too far and would eliminate several important programs, like the Affordable Care Act. So for the next week, the biggest question for Boehner will be: Can he get enough Republican votes to pass the budget his own party designed?
“I think so. Sure. Absolutely,” Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., the budget chairman, said with wavering confidence when asked if the budget could pass on the House floor.
Price took pains to address many of those concerns. The budget plan would cut $5.5 trillion in spending over 10 years. By using a fund meant for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it would increase defense spending. And it would makes changes to entitlement programs like Medicaid to give states more control.
But the inability to find votes to pass bills among House Republicans is becoming a staggering problem for Boehner. Earlier this month, the Department of Homeland Security was taken to the brink of a shutdown when Boehner couldn’t get the votes needed to pass a three-week extension of the department's funding and the bill died on the House floor in dramatic fashion. Eventually, he had to acquiesce and pass a full-year funding bill with the overwhelming help of Democrats. Just this year, House Republican leadership has had to withdraw an abortion bill, an education bill and a border security bill.
A budget resolution is a pretty hefty document, and not just because it goes on for hundreds of pages. It serves as the guiding authority for appropriators to craft spending bills -- the legislation that avoids a government shutdown. But budgets aren’t binding, meaning they carry almost no weight of law. They're more like suggestions. And frequently they outline 10 years worth of spending plans.
For the past several years, budgets have been built in Congress in a sort of haphazard method: House Republicans filed their budget. Senate Democrats filed their budget. The president (sometimes) sent Congress his own plan. And nothing else became of the vastly different documents.
But now that Republicans control both chambers of Congress, they have an opportunity to write their own wish list. And because of the rules that dictate how budgets are to be handled, it’s one of the only pieces of legislation that can avoid a Democratic filibuster. That means it’s the Republicans' best chance for forcing President Barack Obama to veto every policy change they could hope for, all rolled into one document. Then Republicans can spend weeks pushing the message that Obama is the one to blame for the nation’s fiscal woes.
But first, Republicans are going to have to get the bill passed by their own members. And it looks like steps were taken to carefully craft the budget to appease the varying Republican interests. The budget writers make the case that it will be balanced in less than 10 years. It increases defense spending -- but some opponents argue that it’s simply a gimmick that won’t actually bring more money to the Pentagon.
More Policy Riders?
One of the biggest problems for Republican leadership has been conservatives' efforts to tie policy changes to fiscal bills. The proposed budget does some of that, issuing directions to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and roll back Dodd-Frank financial reforms. If conservatives start pushing for more policy riders, it could send the budget off the rails.
The biggest opposition from conservatives might come in how the budget has been drafted, keeping the tax revenue from the Affordable Care Act in place and not accounting for the elimination of several tax breaks at the end of the year, known as tax extenders. And if conservatives are going to be roused into opposing it, they are likely to find allies among Democrats.
“Their budget doesn’t balance, even under Enron accounting standards,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, referring to the notorious energy company that went bankrupt in 2001. “No one with a straight face can say it balances in 10 years.”