Mike & Co. —
House and Senate leaders are pursuing different legislative strategies as Congress continues to make progress on a fiscal year 2017 budget for the U.S. government.
One chamber is processing down the good governance path of regular order, with Appropriations subcommittee hearings by the dozens already held and a date certain for a budget resolution mark-up. The other chamber has scheduled and cancelled a Budget Committee mark-up and has not rescheduled it.
Which is which and why? What is at stake? More below.
Regular Budget Order or None at All?
The divide is a result of two unrelated factors — the curious vote-a-rama and reconciliation features of the budget making process and the deep divide regarding strategic objectives within the GOP between the views that
• the GOP should pass a budget through regular order to demonstrate its ability to govern and
• the GOP should throw out the Obama-Boehner spending deal and enact a cost-slashing budget in line with the sequestration levels.
The major bone of contention is the spending deal reached last year between President Obama and former Speaker Boehner, which increases spending roughly $30 billion this year. While Senate Republicans seem increasingly content to abide by that deal House leadership has had no end of trouble getting their colleagues to toe the line.
Ryan, Price, and Brady (not to mention their Senate counterparts) are advocating the former while the House Freedom Caucus insists on the latter of these two approaches, it’s been a public and embarrassing battle for the House GOP so far. In any other year the House Speaker may look for cooperation from Democrats, especially to save his promise for passing a budget. But considering the political nature of the promise, to show that the GOP can govern, it might look like a surrender to turn to Democrats for help.
House Ways and Means Chair Kevin Brady has tried to break the stalemate by releasing a series of tax bills touted as a “budget savings” package. The legislation will cut $16 billion in two years and $98 billion over ten. The bills are expected to be market up this week.
The Brady bill comes after the Freedom Caucus balked at a deal by Tom Price which would pass a budget resolution sticking to last year’s deal while allowing a separate vote to cut $30 billion in mandatory spending. Holdouts against the Price deal claimed that they would not accept any deal which included passing a budget in line with the Obama-Boehner deal; Brady’s legislation doesn’t touch that issue at all, and hasn’t been made contingent on Freedom Caucus cooperation. It’s hard to see how this package will sway the hardliners.
Meanwhile in the Senate
Senate Republicans have signaled they’re unlikely to act on a budget before the House, placing more pressure on Ryan et al. So why are Senate Republicans so amenable to skipping out on a budget? A number of their colleagues are up for reelection in difficult states, and being forced to cast embarrassing votes may hurt their chances. Senate procedures allow 30 hours of open debate and unlimited amendments to budget resolutions, the so called “vote-a-rama,” so it’s a virtual certainty that politically sensitive votes will come up.
Senator Richard Shelby has noted that a budget wasn’t necessary since the Senate already had a total discretionary spending figure to shoot for. Senator Corker echoed his statement, calling the budget “an unbelievable hoax” that he could live without.
In a move sure to upset budget hawks, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said of the Senate’s upcoming appropriations bill: “we will be using the top-line that was agreed to last year … We have the top-lines for this year and we’re going to go forward with appropriations.”
Consequences of Failure
If the Senate and House don’t pass identical budgets then the GOP will lose its ability to pursue budget reconciliation, through which budget-related legislation can move through the Senate on a simple majority and avoid filibusters. This was used last year to pass legislation repealing large swaths of ACA, though it was promptly vetoed by Obama. The GOP would surely like to have that option available again to take one last swing at the outgoing administration.
The GOP has to ask itself: is it worth losing reconciliation to make a stand against spending levels? It’s hard to believe that the majority will ever think they gain more ground politically by giving up on reconciliation in favor of making a budget statement. After all, it’s hard to make failure look good.