BALTIMORE—Republicans retreated to the Baltimore Inner Harbor to talk strategy for their 2016 legislative blitz. But when they return to Washington, they’ll have to settle a skirmish in their own ranks.
The disagreement revolves around the budget deal negotiated in October by President Obama and then-House Speaker John Boehner. That agreement locks in government spending levels for two years, increasing overall spending by $80 billion.
Conservatives want to revisit the issue. Republican leadership does not.
The House Budget Committee, led by Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., soon will begin work on a new budget resolution. Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., indicated at the retreat that the committee would use the Boehner-Obama spending levels.
“We had a budget agreement that passed [last year],” McCarthy told reporters Thursday as Republicans gathered at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront. “I think that’s the number you will see.”
By beginning the process three or four weeks earlier than usual, Price said, he hopes to give lawmakers more time to consider each spending bill individually. That’s consistent with a promise by Speaker Paul Ryan, who succeeded Boehner in late October, to return the House to regular order during the appropriations process.
Through regular order—in contrast to the one-and-done omnibus budget package—Congress would approve spending for individual agencies and programs one bill at a time.
Not only will that take time, Rep. Bill Flores of Texas told The Daily Signal at the retreat, but it will make renegotiating spending levels incredibly difficult.
“If you want to get the appropriations bills done [one at a time through regular order], the numbers in the October budget deals are the ones that’ll be used,” said Flores, chairman of the conservative-leaning Republican Study Committee.
The House passed the spending levels in October, 266-167, with support from more liberal Republicans and every Democrat in the House except for one. A total of 79 Republicans out of 246 supported the measure.
Two conservatives—Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio—said Wednesday that last year’s deal muddies this year’s legislative waters.
“Maybe we should think about writing that budget to a lower number,” said Jordan, speaking to reporters at The Heritage Foundation, “and do what the American people sent us here to do, which is reduce spending.”
Lee agreed with Jordan, who is chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, noting that the lack of Republican support for the last budget agreement “certainly complicates the task of passing a budget this year.”
Members of the conservative Freedom Caucus say they want guarantees from leadership about how the fast-track reconciliation process would be used before they support any budget resolution.
And while that’s a “tough sell” for leadership to make to conservatives, Flores said, the alternative is also thorny.
If conservatives decided to revisit spending levels, they could hold up the budget process. If that happens, they may lose an opportunity to deploy budget reconciliation—the obscure tactic Republicans used to neutralize a Democrat filibuster and send a bill gutting Obamacare to the president’s desk.
“The question people have to put in their mind is whether the value of reconciliation is good enough you’re willing to compromise on the [spending] numbers,” Flores told The Daily Signal on Friday. “Or are the numbers so important that reconciliation doesn’t have enough value to offset that?”
Lawmakers may choose to use the strategy to pursue some of Ryan’s big-ticket legislative items, such as tax reform or welfare reform. Even if conservatives use reconciliation to get bills out of Congress, they remain in danger of a presidential veto.
Congress was able to pass welfare reform under President Bill Clinton in 1996 by using the reconciliation strategy, although the Democrat vetoed two plans first.
But “Obama is not Bill Clinton,” Flores said. “I don’t think he’s willing to let conservatives have any victories at all.”
In that case, a reconciliation component to the budget would be “negligible,” the Texan said.
“It may turn out that reconciliation can’t be used on anything, and if that’s the case, we’ll just keep fighting like heck for lower numbers.”