While House Democrats were busy in Baltimore listening to Vice President Joe Biden, House conservatives were holding their own retreat Thursday, meeting to discuss an upcoming budget debate and other conservative priorities in 2016.
Roughly two dozen House conservatives met at the Salamander Resort and Spa in Middleburg, Virginia, for the Heritage Foundation's annual Conservative Member Retreat. And while members in attendance reported that there were no definitive decisions on how they'll move forward with the budget, it's clear there are some potential vote issues with the spending blueprint.
Members don't have any firm demands yet, but a number of conservatives both in and outside of the House Freedom Caucus have expressed concern over the top-line 2017 spending number. Conservative Republicans would generally prefer to revert back to the spending number laid out in the 2011 Budget Control Act, rather than the new number to which Republicans and Democrats agreed in October -- a difference of about $30 billion.
Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), the conservative who took down former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014, told The Huffington Post Thursday that reducing the 2017 budget by $30 billion was the "minimum fix needed this year." He said that conservatives should get "pledges on paper" for a future overhaul of entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security.
That could be a problem for GOP leaders.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) privately met with Republican members of the chamber's budget committee earlier this month to tell them that the 2017 number isn't really negotiable, according to a senior GOP aide with knowledge of the meeting.
Ryan and McCarthy argued that they need to adopt a budget and abide by the recent government spending numbers if they're going to have any chance of passing appropriations bills, the aide said. (Republicans look at the appropriations bills as a natural place to attach policy riders restricting agencies like the IRS and the Environmental Protection Agency.)
"Every member wants to get back to a regular order appropriations process, and the budget is an important first step to achieving that goal," AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Ryan, told HuffPost on Thursday. "The best path ahead will be discussed and determined by the conference in the coming weeks."
The budget is emerging as an early hurdle in Ryan's young speakership. The Congressional Budget Office recently handed Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), chairman of the budget committee, some difficult baselines to work with -- at least, if he wants to carry on the GOP tradition of balancing the budget within a 10-year time frame.
Republicans are stuck in the bind of having to square increasing deficits within the 10-year window, and to get to balance, they'll have to rely on painful cuts as well as, probably, a collection of budgetary gimmicks.
The problem is that Congress already used up the easiest spending cuts last year, and conservatives are apt to demand real reductions to achieve balance. Moderates, meanwhile, are likely to see the budget as an election-year liability -- particularly if they're forced to vote for cutting popular government programs.
Complicating the matter is that the budget -- at least in this stage of the legislative process -- is usually a partisan vote. Republicans can't rely on a single Democrat to support the document. Therefore, the House GOP, with its 246 members, can only lose about 20 votes and still have a majority for passage.
Part of the discussion on Thursday for conservatives involved the question of what could they get in exchange for supporting the higher spending number. But again, members are leaving final decisions for when they return to the Capitol next week.
And this is just to start the budget negotiations. Once Price produces a document, conservatives will no doubt find issues with the budget -- as could moderates. Last year, defense hawks demanded additional spending outside the budget caps for their vote, which was a major point of contention among conservative budget committee members themselves.
This year looks like it could be even more difficult.