Congressional Republicans,are trying to project responsibility and order, proof that they can lead the country.
With Congress set to miss the Friday deadline for passing a budget, House Republican leaders seem to be coming around to the idea of moving on with spending bills without a spending blueprint.
Bringing appropriations bills to the floor without a budget after May 15—the official date on which the House can begin moving the measures—is within the chamber’s rules, but doing so would be an admission of defeat for a speaker who has stressed the importance of budgeting throughout his career. Doing so could anger House conservatives, and the majority’s inability to follow its own timeline has already begun to draw mockery from Democrats.
Nonetheless, Speaker Paul Ryan on Thursday said in plainer terms than he had before that he might allow appropriators to move their bills to the floor without a budget. Previously, he has said he does not want to move ahead without one.
“We have not foreclosed any of those options, so we haven’t decided one way or the other,” Ryan said Thursday when asked whether he would allow the appropriations process to begin. “We are having those conversations with our members and we do want to pass a budget. Granted, there is an appropriations number that’s already out there. That’s one of the reasons … it’s taken the pressure off the feel for a need for a budget.”
Appropriators have been holding hearings on their spending bills, and are marking up to a $1.07 trillion level, which was agreed to in a bicameral budget agreement in October. Unfortunately for leaders, 153 House Republicans voted against that agreement, and many now want Ryan to try to lower the budget, or force cuts elsewhere to the federal government.
Members of the House Freedom Caucus and the Republican Study Committee, in particular, have been urging leaders to engage the Senate and President Obama by attaching $30 billion in spending cuts to a must-pass bill. Rep. Dave Brat, a Freedom Caucus member, said his group has given leaders scores of suggestions about money they can cut. They just want leaders to lead the fight, he said.
“The way you do that is not to give up your leverage ahead of time,” Brat said. “If you want to do a House bill, good, let’s do a House bill. … Then negotiate with the Senate and the White House after you do a House bill. But not after you wave the white flag and give up all your leverage. No, I can’t go forward with that.”
Leaders, however, have been wary of being drawn into a legislative scuffle that could end with a government shutdown in the midst of a presidential election. Congressional Republicans, despite their party’s mercurial leading candidate for president, Donald Trump, are trying to project responsibility and order, proof that they can lead the country.
That is, in part, why appropriators are itching to start the spending process. Leaders promised the public regular order, and if they manage to get a presidential signature on even a few bills before the July recess, they could claim victory and roll the rest into a package they can pass by September.
“If they want to hold to their position they can. The sad thing is there’s nothing to be gained,” Rep. Tom Cole, an appropriator, said. “The budget’s not law. What they’re giving up is a chance at reconciliation, a chance to keep us on the path of entitlement reform, to keep voting for it, and a chance to have a more orderly appropriations process.”
“‘Wait a minute, weren’t you the guys with ‘No Budget, No Pay?”’ Those are real vulnerabilities,” Cole continued, mimicking the Democrats’ knock on Republicans.
That was exactly the message Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid had for Republicans on Thursday. When asked in a press conference this week if the Senate planned on passing a budget, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the chamber is “waiting to see if the House is able” to do it. Reid panned the comment, reminding the Republicans of their ridicule when they were in the minority—and of McConnell’s promise to pass a budget “every year” in 2012.
“They shed crocodile tears by the bucketful,” Reid said Thursday. “They even threatened to withhold members’ pay as punishment. There was legislation produced to that effect. But it was all for show.”
Of course, it’s not necessary to pass a budget this year. Congress has already set the top-line numbers for fiscal 2016 and 2017, and McConnell has said the Senate will move to the appropriations bills next week assuming those figures.
But the failure to do so nonetheless remains an embarrassment, not just because it will be the first time this decade a Republican-led House hasn’t passed a budget, and the failure comes with Ryan, the party’s chief budget architect, at the helm.
The struggle to pass a budget is especially pronounced because Republicans cannot rely on Democrats to bail them out. Even more so than not passing a budget, the budget itself is a constant wellspring for attack ads from Democrats.
“The budget that House Republicans have put forward, like the several before it, is based on the same kind of trickle-down economics that we have seen again and again—enrich those with plenty, while making conditions more difficult for those who are struggling just to get by,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said at a Democratic hearing on poverty Thursday.
Still, it is not clear whether leaders would need Democratic help to pass a motion to proceed with spending bills in the absence of a budget. GOP aides said this week they are counting on the idea that their own members, as well as Democratic ones, would be hard pressed to vote against debate on bills governing military construction, veterans, and defense.
Alex Rogers contributed to this report.