Speaker Paul Ryan wanted House Republicans to drive the policy conversation in 2016. Now, with a GOP budget suddenly in doubt if Republicans can't agree on a top-line 2017 spending number, the House is in danger of putting forward next to nothing this year. And that leaves leaders with a make-or-break question: How do they get out of this mess?
Ryan brought House Republicans together on Friday to lay out three options.
Option one: appease conservatives by adopting a budget at the lower sequester spending levels, only to see the Senate block appropriations bills and Congress end up with a continuing resolution.
Option two: add more defense dollars to the current spending number set under a bipartisan deal in October, only to see the Senate block that, too.
Option three: adopt a budget at the current, agreed-upon $1.07 trillion spending level that lays out conservative principles and lets Republicans get on with the appropriations process.
It's clear Ryan himself would go with Door No. 3, but it's not clear there's a coalition of 218 Republicans to get him there, which is forcing Republicans to get creative.
House Freedom Caucus member Andy Harris (R-Md.) floated another idea on Friday: pair the new spending number with an offsetting amount of cuts to mandatory spending.
Most Republicans are keen on tackling entitlement spending to some degree, it's just unclear if those cuts would actually be enacted.
One HFC member who has been working on the mandatory cuts plan told The Huffington Post on Tuesday that he seriously doubts that idea could find 218 supporters.
"I don't see it without real legislation to address mandatory spending being passed first," the HFC member said, "and even then, it will be a heavy lift."
Another idea, floated by HFC member Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.), is to adopt a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution requiring the budget to be balanced in 10 years. You want him to agree to an already-enacted spending level that's $30 billion higher than the current trillion-dollar number? Get going on that amendment.
The one idea that has gained a lot of traction among Republicans is to just "deem" the current spending number -- or, in other words, just adopt it. In the conservative telling of this scenario, Democrats would supply Republicans with the necessary votes to affirm the top-line number, letting the majority of Republicans maintain their ideological purity by voting no.
“With voters picking up a particularly aggressive strain of "throw-the-bums-out," conservatives are taking a hard line against the budget.”
Of course, that sort of Washington maneuver has its opponents. As Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) recently told HuffPost, "That's how you get a guaranteed President Trump."
It's also unclear how that would solve the main issue for Republicans. Once they've adopted that number, do they expect Republicans to vote for individual appropriations bills that maintain that spending level? How many bills? One? Two?
The truth is that many conservatives just don't see what's in it for them by adopting a budget. Sure, they get to do appropriations measures. But to what end?
Asked about Ryan's argument that adopting a budget would enable lawmakers to go on to debating spending measures, conservative Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) said he didn't buy it and offered a two-word rebuttal: Donald Trump.
He said the anger that swept his tea party class into Congress in 2010 was twice as potent now, and that politicians had better act accordingly. "We've got to listen to what's going on," he said.
What's going on, Gosar says, is fury over business as usual and anger about Republicans in Congress presiding over an explosion of debt -- with new Congressional Budget Office baselines suggesting that deficits are only getting worse.
And suddenly, with voters picking up a particularly aggressive strain of "throw-the-bums-out," conservatives are taking a hard line against the budget.
"It is mind-boggling to me how Washington continually ignores our financial Judgment Day in order to win on the next Election Day," Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) told HuffPost on Tuesday.
Brooks insists a $30 billion cut is just the beginning. "We have to start getting real here," he said, adding that if Congress couldn't even make that cut, he wasn't going to vote for something that is "financially irresponsible."
"Again, I'm not convinced that the elected officials in Washington understand the danger of the situation," Brooks said, speaking of a $19 trillion debt.
The question for leadership is just how many Republicans are like Brooks. With 246 Republicans in the House, GOP leaders can lose almost 30 votes and still adopt a budget. The problem is, this may be a battle leaders end up fighting on two fronts.
As Ryan alluded to when presenting his three options, there is some pressure from defense hawks to raise the spending number further, most likely in the form of additional money for the Overseas Contingency Operations Fund. On the Senate side, Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he would "raise hell" to get more money for defense, which he said was $17 billion short of last year.
In the House, defense hawks seem to be waiting to see what Ryan can do on the budget before they begin what is becoming a yearly ritual of demanding more money for their votes.
"Right now, we're kind of letting the speaker see if he can herd everybody together," one of those defense-minded Republicans, Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, told HuffPost on Friday. "Our intention is not to blow up any processes."
But conservatives see those Republicans waiting in the wings -- Labrador also recently told HuffPost "that's how we get to a $19 trillion debt, is when you have defense guys who have no respect for budget caps" -- and many of them start thinking the best way to defend against additional spending is to just sink the entire budget process.
Of course, the alternative is to just do what conservatives ask: Put forward a budget that goes back on the October 2015 deal and reduces the budget by $30 billion. What was once unthinkable is now in the realm of possibility. One leadership aide told HuffPost that putting forward a budget with the lower number was "still a very active discussion" and that leadership was not "predetermining anything."
Ryan appears to be distancing himself a bit from the budget. He told Republicans on Friday that they don't have to do a budget, that they're not "staring down a cliff." And while it might be a shame not to do a budget, the sky won't fall. Ultimately, it's the members' decision, not his.
Meanwhile, Budget Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.) is sticking with the eternal sunshine that Republicans will adopt a budget.
Asked whether he still thought the House would get a spending blueprint done, Price was emphatic that the answer is yes.
"I'm an optimistic guy," he said.
And what if he weren't an optimistic guy?
"I wouldn't be in this profession," Price answered.
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