The bipartisan budget agreement that Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan brokered late last year was designed to stop Congress from lurching from crisis to crisis.
But it's not stopping some Senate Republicans from raising questions about the spending figures that Murray, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee, introduced into the record this week.
While Senate Republicans say they have no plans for another standoff over fiscal policy this year, the leading Republican on the Budget Committee is thrusting the issue back into the spotlight and painting Murray's figures as a Democratic "gimmick" to stretch the spending caps contained in the agreement.
"There are forces in the Senate who without careful thought seem to feel their goal is to spend more than the limits," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican. "It's been true in the Senate since I've been here."
Democrats flatly reject that argument.
"Chairman Murray believes we should be building on the Bipartisan Budget Act to create jobs and grow the economy, rather than reopening the agreement both sides reached just a few months ago," said Budget Committee spokeswoman Helen Hare. "Consistent with this goal, the budget authority allocated to the Senate appropriations committee is the same as what was set in the Bipartisan Budget Act and what was filed in the House."
So, why the disagreement?
At its core, this is a wonky debate over the difference between budget authority and budget outlays, two different measures of spending that essentially allow both sides to make the claims they do. Specifically, budget authority is what agencies can legally obligate the government to pay, writes the Congressional Research Service, while budget outlays are actual disbursements from the Treasury.
This week, Murray filed allocations for appropriators into the record, as the budget deal required. Accordingly, she set budget authority at $1.014 trillion. Ryan also filed those allocations, and his budget authority figure matches Murray's — and both match the Congressional Budget Office's baseline figure.
However, where the difference comes in — and where Sessions is crying foul — is that Murray set budget outlays at $1.16 trillion. That figure, according to documents obtained by National Journal, is $19 billion above Ryan's budget outlays.
Democrats say this is much ado about nothing. Democratic appropriators in the Senate plan to write their bills, which they'll begin marking up later this month, to the budget-authority figure, according to Senate aides.
But it is on this point that Sessions is skeptical. "The appropriators have always — some of them, I used to think — got up in the morning thinking instead of how to spend the money they got, how to spend more than they've got," he said. "They spend more time trying to figure out how to spend more than spending wisely the money they have."
Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana, a Republican appropriator, agreed. "It's so symptomatic of what happens around here. Numbers mean nothing. Everybody says this is it. This is as far as we can go."
Some Democrats, though, say it's common for the outlay figure to differ from the authority figure, and indeed Ryan's outlay figure is $1.14 trillion, which comports with CBO's estimate. For their part, Democrats argue they're building in some flexibility should appropriators need it.
"Appropriators in the House and Senate will be working with that same overall spending limit," Hare said.
Whether Republicans can raise a budget point of order on the matter looks unlikely, said a Republican lawmaker who requested anonymity to speak candidly. Sessions raised budget points of order last year.
"It's not a little matter that you can always gimmick the modest spending limits we have. I'm unhappy about it," he said. "I think it's wrong."