POLITICS

A Paul Ryan Budget In A Donald Trump World

Speaker Paul Ryan wants to move a budget. But everyone's attention on Capitol Hill is on Trump. So why do it?

WASHINGTON -- Does anyone care about doing a budget?

With Donald Trump dominating the discussion on Capitol Hill, a budget -- or the lack thereof -- isn't exactly an in vogue topic.

In scrums with members, reporters want to know about Trump. At the House Republican press conference on Wednesday, leadership spent 14 minutes of a press conference talking about opioid legislation moving through the chamber, only to have every question asked of Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) be about Trump.

Even members are getting in on the act.

During Republicans' regularly scheduled, closed-door meeting on Wednesday, Ryan focused the discussion on finishing a budget. But members couldn't resist talking about Trump. They wanted to express that they backed Ryan's position of reserved support for the presumptive GOP nominee, and they wanted to know when they might be able to meet with Trump themselves.

Yes, it's easy to miss the fact that Republicans have not moved a budget through either chamber. After current Budget Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.) got Republicans on his committee to advance the spending blueprint in March, there's been little action.

With House rules stating that lawmakers can bring up appropriations bills after May 15 even without setting spending limits, and with Senate lawmakers letting their chamber's budget chairman simply insert overall levels into the record without a vote, there's little actual need to do a budget at this point.

But the public relations argument, that Republicans aren't doing their job -- that Ryan, the former budget chairman, couldn't unify his own conference to do a budget! -- is not lost on the speaker. He wants to move a budget.

To do that, Ryan is prepared to advance a plan that is a marriage of a House Freedom Caucus idea and a proposal leadership cooked up. The scheme would be to, in effect, move two pieces of legislation: one package of cuts, and one budget at the $1.070 trillion level that Republicans and Democrats agreed to at the end of October.

Conservatives have balked at that number, insisting Republicans go back to the $1.040 trillion level set under the 2011 Budget Control Act. Ryan says the votes aren't there for that level either. For months now, he's been trying to find a way to herd 218 Republican votes on some sort of budget plan to no avail.

This newest proposal is really an old one with a twist. In February, leadership proposed adopting the budget at the $1.070 level with a "sidecar" of $30 billion in savings. That would allow appropriators to spend at the eventual $1.070 trillion level, but would give Republicans some cover with their most fiscally hawkish constituents.

Conservative House members, however, said the cuts had to be real.

Then House Freedom Caucus member Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) proposed tearing down the wall between discretionary and mandatory spending. The chatter among HFC members was, if you let us do that, we'll go along with your budget.

But Democrats and many Republicans insisted that was a dangerous idea, and leadership seemed unwilling to give conservatives such a seismic concession for the seemingly pro forma act of agreeing to a budget that's already in place. (The deal in October set the budget for fiscal years '16 and '17.)

Ryan's newest gambit is to do the $30 billion sidecar, but ensure that the cuts are from the mandatory side. It's not tearing down the wall between mandatory and discretionary, but, for this one time at least, it's sledgehammering at a few bricks.

Griffith called HFC Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) about the plan Monday night, wondering if it might be enough for the Freedom Caucus. But if Tuesday night's HFC meeting was any indication, the answer is: not quite.

Jordan asked Griffith on Monday if there was a commitment from leadership that the mandatory cuts will actually accompany each spending bill as it's considered.

"Or is the commitment, 'We promise we'll get to the $30 billion in reduction in mandatory savings at some bill down the line'?" Jordan asked.

"And he said, 'There's no commitment early on; we'll get to it sometime,'" Jordan reported. "So it's like, 'OK, well then, we're not going to go for that.'"

Most Freedom Caucus members insist the cuts must be real for them to agree to a budget, and they say, in this newest scenario, the Senate could just strip out the $30 billion cut if they wanted to, or just ignore the budget entirely. (They have, after all, already agreed to that spending level.)

There are some members in the HFC, however, who seem ready to support the budget plan as presented. It was Griffith who actually presented the plan Wednesday morning during the meeting.

There are roughly 40 members in the Freedom Caucus, and Republicans can lose about 30 votes on the budget and still get it through the chamber. 

The problem is opposition isn't confined to the HFC. There are members outside of the conservative group who want real cuts, and others still who don't want to expend political capital on a vote that is functionally unnecessary.

It's unclear where the votes stand at this point. Leadership could potentially knuckle down and get some holdouts, but that would cost them political capital too.

A source in the room on Wednesday, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door meeting, told HuffPost there was "enthusiasm to continue budget discussions."

But if everyone's attention is on Trump -- if no one is asking, "Whatever happened to that budget?" -- Ryan has little reason to focus his attention on something hardly anyone seems to care about.

Editor's note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liarrampant xenophoberacistmisogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S.

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