The speaker who made his name writing aggressive spending blueprints now risks not passing one.
Speaker Paul Ryan made his name with aggressive GOP budgets. Now, he is at risk of becoming the first Republican speaker this decade to fail to pass a House spending blueprint.
Ryan is in the unenviable position of enforcing an October deal struck by his predecessor, John Boehner, that passed with only 79 Republican supporters. Ryan voted for that deal, and passed several other Boehner bills last year, all the while claiming that he was playing the hand he was dealt, not the one he would prefer. Now, conservatives are through giving Ryan immunity.
“This is the first thing Paul probably can’t blame on the previous coach,” said one leadership-aligned House Republican, speaking anonymously to candidly discuss the dynamic in the party.
Ryan is facing widening opposition in his conference to a $1.070 trillion fiscal 2017 budget, a number set by the October deal. Leaders believe that passing anything lower would renege on the deal and severely jeopardize their goal of returning the appropriations process to regular order.
Amid skepticism that the Senate will join the House in passing those bills, however, Republican members of the House Freedom Caucus and Republican Study Committee are pushing leadership to pass a budget roughly $30 billion lower.
“This is clearly the Boehner budget number,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a member of the House Freedom Caucus. “If we were to approve the budget at this higher level, then that number is ours. It’s no longer Boehner’s. That’s why so many conservatives struggle with it.”
The opposition is surfacing just as President Obama sends his annual budget to Capitol Hill on Tuesday. Republicans will no doubt decry it, but failing to produce a rival blueprint would dull GOP attacks that the president is not being fiscally responsible.
This week will be critical for Ryan, as he goes behind closed doors Wednesday for a series of meetings to survey just how deep the opposition is and try to allay members’ concerns. Then on Friday, Republicans will gather for an all-hands-on-deck conference meeting to discuss the budget.
Coming to an agreement is important for the GOP not just because they hammered Democrats for failing to pass a budget when they were in power, but because in a presidential-election year, any intraparty fights on Capitol Hill could taint their candidate—especially if the candidate ends up being a member of Congress.
“Going into the end of the presidential cycle, Republicans could really look stupid … up here and cause a distraction,” said Rep. Tom Rooney, an appropriator. “Or we could have our stuff done by the appropriating committees and bring each bill to the House floor. If those people want to vote against them, they’re more than welcome. But making a big to-do about what the budget number is … I think just makes us the center of attention again in a bad way next fall, and that would be foolish.”
Republican support is crucial because the spending blueprint would contain several entitlement-related measures that Ryan worked for years to popularize in his party, but which Democrats unanimously oppose. If only 28 Republicans balk, the resolution would be unpassable.
Yet if the meetings this week go anything like his confab with the conservative House Freedom Caucus last week, Ryan has his work cut out for him. In that meeting, Ryan faced indifference when he tried to explain that going back on the deal would jeopardize what Republicans have promised: a return to regular order in the appropriations process.
He also received a cool response when he offered a vote later in the year on a plan that would alter Medicare in order to trim the national debt. “Discussions are ongoing,” said caucus member Rep. Mark Meadows. “There have been no offers made … except for some general discussions about how to save Medicare.”
Mulvaney said for many in his group, though, a promise of future spending cuts rings hollow, even if entitlement reform is their eventual goal. “Even though our trust levels with Paul are so much higher, he doesn’t get to make those decisions by himself.” he said. “As highly as I regard Paul, I’m finished trading votes now for something later.”
Mulvaney said he instead proposed a vote on a bill imposing term limits on members of Congress in exchange for approving the higher budget. Alternately, he said, the House should approve the lower budget, but then mark up a few spending bills at the higher level, and send them to the Senate one by one, in order to establish trust. Whatever remains at the end of the year can be rolled into an omnibus-like package.
“We do think there’s support in the party to pass a budget at a lower number and pass some appropriations bills too,” Mulvaney said. “We’ve never done 12 [appropriations bills] anyway, so what makes anyone think this year would be any different?”