For most observers, the biggest question about the House Republicans’ forthcoming budget is how they’ll handle the issue of Medicare. Will they readopt the same phase-out and privatize policy that got them into political trouble last year? Or will they, at least to some extent, scale back their vision?
But the bigger question has nothing to do with Medicare. The bigger question is whether House Republicans can pass a budget at all.
The dilemma, first noted by Daniel Newhauser of Roll Call, is a straightforward outgrowth of the self-governance problem the GOP’s dealt with since it reclaimed the majority last year. A sizable faction of the party wants to make a big statement with the budget, and, perhaps, use it as a tool to cut further into domestic federal programs. But others in the party — including some in the leadership — want to avoid an election year clash that threatens a government shutdown. They want to hew to the spending levels they agreed upon with Democrats last year when they resolved the debt limit standoff.
Obviously Democrats aren’t going to help the GOP advance its vision for the country’s future. So if these two Republican factions can’t come together, they won’t be able to pass a budget.
“That’s problematic. We might not pass a budget, who knows?” said Budget and Appropriations Committee Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID), as quoted by Roll Call.
That would be a huge embarrassment for GOP leaders, who frequently attack Senate Democrats, who haven’t passed their own budget resolution since 2009. (More on that here.)
There’s no easy option for the House GOP, and while some aides downplay the predicament, others privately admit it’s real. A number of them declined to comment.
As House Republicans craft a budget resolution, they’ll have to decide whether to adhere to the spending levels in the Budget Control Act — better known as the debt limit deal. But to pass a budget that reflects the BCA, they’ll have to win over dozens of conservatives, who opposed BCA, and want to cut much more deeply into domestic discretionary programs. If GOP leaders kowtow to the right, though, they risk binding their appropriators to the lower spending caps — caps Senate Democrats will almost certainly reject when it comes time to fund the government again in September.
“You’re certainly not going to get Senate concurrence for going below the caps. So Congress is not going to agree to that,” said Richard Kogan, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “But the House might agree to a concurrent resolution with lower caps.”
If they go that route, the GOP could in effect risk reneging on the debt limit deal, and setting themselves up for another government shutdown fight at the worst possible time — two months before the presidential election.
If the GOP’s conservatives can’t be corralled, their only real option will be to not pass a budget resolution this year, and default to the BCA spending targets that Democrats will probably force them to accept anyway during the fall appropriations process. That would widen the rift between GOP leaders and the rank and file, and surrender an opportunity to energize their base ahead of the election — doing nothing is politically perilous for Republicans who have been excoriating Senate Democrats for not passing a long-term budget vision of their own.
Again, this spat is unlikely to impact the actual federal budget in the near term — or at least until after the November election. But it’s a a key test of whether the GOP can close ranks and proceed united in an election year, or whether their internal divisions are so severe that they’re forced to punt with their voting base watching.
Sahil Kapur is a congressional reporter for TPM. He previously covered politics and public policy for numerous publications including The Guardian and The Huffington Post. He can be reached at sahil [at] talkingpointsmemo.com.