WASHINGTON ― House Democratic leaders canceled a vote for later this week on a two-year budget plan after progressives took issue with the limits for defense and domestic spending in the blueprint. But what hardly any progressive member seemed to understand Tuesday was that Democrats functionally approved the spending limits in a procedural vote.
House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) announced in a statement Tuesday that his two-year legislation setting budget numbers ― already pared down from a full 10-year budget ― would not come up for a vote.
“There are further conversations we must have to reach consensus between the wings of our caucus, left and right,” Yarmuth said in a statement. “But we all have a responsibility to govern and obligations to the American people, so our work continues.”
The announcement set off a round of self-congratulatory news releases from progressive groups like Indivisible ― “When progressives fight, they win,” associate policy director for the group, Elizabeth Beavers, said ― and giddy quotes from Republicans. “House Dems have 99 problems, and demonstrating they can govern is definitely one,” Chris Martin, the rapid-response director for the House GOP conference, said.
But the victory for progressives and Republicans was basically meaningless; not an hour before the House leadership officially decided to kill its budget, Democrats had approved a provision that automatically adopted a total spending target and would allow Yarmuth to lay out more specific spending guidelines.
That provision, tucked into a measure setting up debate on a net neutrality bill Tuesday, would actually allow Yarmuth to even adjust the budget’s overall spending number. And while progressives were celebrating the “message” they had sent Democratic leadership that they needed to consult with liberals better on spending plans, they were also voting for the rule that allows appropriators to begin writing spending bills. The co-chairman of the Progressive Caucus, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, was taking a victory lap with the press literally as Democrats voted on the rule.
Pocan told reporters it was important for liberals to show that they “fundamentally disagree” with Democratic leadership on the spending numbers. “The first time Democrats are back in control, that was our opportunity to put parity between non-defense and defense, and that should have been the negotiating position,” Pocan said.
There was a $33 billion difference between the fiscal 2020 defense number ($664 billion) and the non-defense number ($631 billion). Progressives wanted those numbers to be the same, preferably by adding $33 billion to the domestic spending target.
Unlike a lot of other lawmakers, Pocan understood how the rule vote would functionally allow Democrats to proceed with appropriation bills without a budget. But he still claimed this was a win for progressives because it was “not what leadership wanted.”
Leaders wanted at least their two-year budget bill to set more specific spending guidelines. “And that’s the part that we couldn’t do unless we were consulted earlier about why we wanted additional non-defense spending,” Pocan said.
Democratic leaders believed adopting budget numbers in the House would allow appropriators to write spending bills that catered more to Democratic interests and would show Republicans ― in the House and in the Senate ― that leaders have the votes to pass appropriation bills in the House without GOP votes.
Progressives never bought into that strategy. They believed adding more money to non-defense spending, having the same limit as defense, would actually put Democrats in a stronger negotiating position.
But Democratic leadership was also fighting insurrection from some moderates, too.
Some Blue Dog Democrats, who identify themselves as centrist and fiscally responsible, have recently begun pushing for a vote on a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution. In fact, of the seven Democrats who opposed the rule vote approving the total spending number Tuesday, it was members of the Blue Dog Coalition who voted no.
The Blue Dogs, hailing from some of the most politically vulnerable seats under Democratic control, are in a precarious position already. While Republicans have largely abandoned fiscal conservatism as a governing principle under President Donald Trump, they’re still all too happy to run on the issue ― and voters in these GOP-leaning districts still seem susceptible to such arguments.
So in many ways, a quiet rule vote allowing members of the House Appropriations Committee to begin writing bills over, say, a prolonged budget debate was a political win for Democrats.
Yarmuth told HuffPost on Tuesday that he would defer to appropriators on the defense and non-defense numbers ― an unofficial agreement he and leadership seemed to reach with the progressives. And while the Appropriations Committee can begin writing bills off of limits the panel sets, it doesn’t change the fact that Congress needs to reach an agreement on spending caps to avoid sequestration, the spending reduction agreement set in 2011 that would trigger automatic cuts to both defense and non-defense budgets if lawmakers don’t find an agreement.
Yarmuth didn’t think the rule adopted Tuesday really changed the dynamic of the spending fight because Republicans and Democrats in both chambers still need to agree to a new deal on those spending caps, and, he said, Democrats needed 218 votes in the House to pass appropriation bills.
“Well,” Yarmuth said, correcting himself, “maybe on a final deal we may be able to get some Republican votes, so we may not need 218 Democratic votes.”
If House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) just intend to reach a caps deal and then write bipartisan appropriation bills to those numbers ― McConnell said Tuesday that he and Pelosi have agreed to put together an agreement on spending caps ― progressives may have inadvertently given away the one pressure point they had in these negotiations.
But progressive leaders didn’t seem to see it that way Tuesday.
The other Progressive Caucus co-chair, Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), said her understanding of the rule vote Tuesday was that it would allow appropriators to “deem” the spending numbers. And another progressive leader, Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) told HuffPost essentially the same thing.
“My understanding is that it increases the caps, and then it will be the appropriators' decisions on how to determine the numbers,” he said.
Liberals in Congress may not think they just cut themselves out of negotiations, but they may have.
Still, it’s unclear how much leverage they ever had in these negotiations and whether voters will notice any of these insular machinations.
As Pocan said: “This issue is really big to people who are inside the Beltway who watch wonky budget conversations. Everyone in Wisconsin is busy having a beer right now.”