As House Republican leaders look for a way out of the ongoing budget standoff, moderates in the GOP conference have cooked up a potential way out of the mess – or, at least, a way to challenge their more conservative colleagues.
Members of the so-called Tuesday Group, a caucus of roughly 50 centrist Republicans, are proposing a quirky congressional procedure that would give Republicans and Democrats votes on a number of individual budget agreements, with the highest vote-getter carrying the day.
The twist to this “King of the Hill” procedure, however, is that if no budget secures a majority, then the current budget number of $1.070 trillion would be automatically “deemed” -- or made official without actually agreeing to a budget -- without a vote, thus circumventing the disagreement among Republicans over that top-line spending number and allowing the House to move forward with appropriations bills at that level.
The plan would require conservatives to vote for a rule setting up the Byzantine process, something they seem loath to do. But that might be the entire point.
The chairman of the Tuesday Group, Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), told The Huffington Post on Monday that if members vote against a rule that would allow their budget to be considered, “they’re acknowledging that their budget doesn’t have 218 votes.”
“They insist that we pass budgets, but then some of them are voting against the rule for considering a budget,” Dent said. “If they vote against the rule, they’re not for considering a budget.”
Dent’s plan, which he recently brought up in a closed-door meeting with his colleagues, seems designed to test the mettle of conservatives and groups like the House Freedom Caucus. Votes on rules are typically sacred affairs split directly along party lines -- and Republicans who vote against rules have been punished in the past. (Dent himself was kicked off a leadership team in 2013 for voting against the rule that steered Congress into a shutdown.)
Over the last year, the Freedom Caucus has challenged the notion that rules must be supported, most notably voting against the resolution to bring Trade Promotion Authority for fast-track approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal to the floor.
But Dent wants to see how many Freedom Caucus members would dare vote against a rule that would set up consideration of their own $1.040 trillion budget proposal, or the even more aggressive Republican Study Committee budget level of $974 billion.
“I don’t see it as a gimmick,” Dent said of his budget process proposal. “I see it as an open and honest process. But I also understand that the end result might be that no budget gets 218 votes.”
Dent said some Freedom Caucus members have told him they’re actually open to his idea -- though that could turn quickly, once they realize that without enough votes for a majority they'd most likely be voting to codify the current budget level of $1.070 trillion.
Last year, conservatives argued that the Trade Promotion Authority rule was “convoluted" and amounted to legislating, rather than just setting up a process for a bill to come to the floor. Their argument with Dent’s plan would probably be similar. But last year’s budget made its way through the House via a similar, highest-vote-getter process -- though there was no deeming resolution attached in the event that no budget secured a majority.
Dent understands that his plan is a bit of a legislative Hail Mary, but he suggested that conservatives should be held accountable for their obstructionism. If they don’t want to vote on a budget, that should be made clear, he said.
If Congress can’t agree on a budget, he added, the institution will face criticism that it's “ineffective and can’t do its job.”
“And I suspect that House Republicans will take the brunt of it,” Dent said.
But Congress might also catch flak for its irregular process, something that Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) vowed to keep regular order when he took the speakership at the end of last year.
More recently, Ryan has told his Republican colleagues that they weren’t going to “deem” the $1.070 trillion level, which would most likely require Democratic votes. He has also spoken out against deeming resolutions when Democrats relied on them.
“Whatever happened to Congress actually doing its job? Whatever happened to actually passing a budget?” he said on the House floor in 2010.
“What is the primary responsibility of the legislative branch of government?” Ryan also asked. “Budgeting. And what is this majority doing? They’re not budgeting.”
Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong told HuffPost on Tuesday that “discussions amongst members continue on the best way to proceed with the budget."
But Dent thinks Ryan genuinely wants to pass a budget, that he mostly sides with moderates like himself, and that if he wants to move forward with appropriations bills, this is a good plan.
“He knows that we’re not the problem,” Dent said. “We know where the problem is.”
Dent, who is the chairman of the least controversial appropriations subcommittee, said his panel was moving forward with its fiscal 2017 bill, and he mentioned that there were only two real achievements in a budget: setting a top-line number for the next year and setting up a process to do a reconciliation bill to get around the 60-vote threshold in the Senate.
“The budget process in Washington is often an exercise in Confederate money,” Dent said. “It’s not real.”
Except in those two categories, of course.
The budget showdown is becoming a true flashpoint for Ryan and his young speakership. The most conservative Republicans insist they won’t support a spending blueprint at the higher number. Moderate Republicans say they won’t support a budget at the lower $1.040 trillion level. And Ryan is left to work out a solution that allows the House to move forward with appropriations bills while not angering either side in a delicate election-year climate.
Ryan has made a point of not turning to Democrats to bail him out of the tricky situation. But Dent, whom Democrats floated as a potential consensus speaker last year, seems to think there’s no evil in working with the other side, especially when more conservative Republicans find themselves voting with Democrats and against their own party.
“When they do it, it seems to be high-minded,” Dent said. “But when we do it, it’s considered to be capitulation.”