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Win or Lose, Ryan Will Bear Budget Burden

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?”