The House Freedom Caucus is close to formally upping the stakes in 2018 budget negotiations, a move that could complicate President Trump’s and Republican leaders’ attempts to pass tax reform and increase the defense budget.
Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said Wednesday that the group may soon take an official position that it will not approve increases to the defense budget unless Congress also votes to lay off 100,000 or more Pentagon staffers and audit the Department of Defense.
Furthermore, he said the group is discussing demanding work requirements be imposed on able-bodied, single food-stamp recipients in order to finance potential defense increases. That would then also have to be paired with a vote to undo the budget sequester, which mandates across-the-board cuts to both domestic and defense accounts.
“There’s a real willingness to look at an increase in defense spending as long as we’re prudent,” Meadows said. “We believe that the Pentagon needs to have a 100,000-government-personnel reduction. The second part of that is we need to get a real audit.”
Passing a budget this year is paramount because House Speaker Paul Ryan wants to use the budget-reconciliation process to pass tax reform, a move that would allow Senate leaders to avoid a filibuster and advance their plan without Democratic votes. That requires adding language into a budget resolution teeing up the process.
Lingering disagreements between Republican defense hawks and fiscal conservatives, however, have long endangered the House’s ability to pass a budget, so there has been a resignation of late that Republicans could pass a relatively meaningless budget document simply to include in it mandatory instructions setting up the reconciliation process.
But the Freedom Caucus is putting ice on that plan, too. Meadows said the group sees the budget as a leverage point this year. Although he acknowledged that caucus members approved a similar maneuver earlier this year to advance their Obamacare rewrite, he said the budget numbers were already locked in by that point. Now, they have a chance to try to cut spending, and they’re taking advantage.
“Tax reform and reconciliation instructions—if they include what we add, we’re all in. If it doesn’t, then we’re not. We’re not just going to pass a [pro forma] budget,” Meadows said. “This time it actually has a difference in terms of our top-level spending.”
Still, some members have their doubts that the Freedom Caucus opposition will hold, particularly if Trump engages in the process and demands a budget in order to be able to pass tax reform.
“I think they probably would [support a budget] for a tax cut,” said Budget Committee member Tom. Cole. “They’re Republicans; they like to cut taxes.”
Still, Trump’s level of engagement on the issue is not a given, particularly as his administration remains embroiled in scandal surrounding his associates’ ties to Russia and accusations that Trump inappropriately tried to influence investigators away from pursuing those ties. Furthermore, the administration and House GOP leaders remain far apart on how to structure tax reform.
On Friday, members of the Freedom Caucus will discuss their ideas for tax reform at the Heritage Foundation. The group was also supposed to meet with Budget Committee Chairwoman Diane Black on Wednesday, but the meeting was pushed until next week.
“The Budget Committee’s goal is to release a budget that balances in 10 years and strengthens our military. We are committed to that goal, and we’re aiming to introduce our budget in the coming weeks,” said Chris Hartline, a spokesman for the committee.
The Freedom Caucus’s asks are significant because a budget cannot pass without their votes, due to the fact that no Democrats will support a GOP budget that is sure to include deep cuts to domestic social programs. Republican defense hawks, meanwhile, are unlikely to support a budget unless they get steep increases to defense spending, and as was proven last year, a budget cannot pass without their votes, either.
Rep. Mike Turner, one of those defense hawks, said he could support a Pentagon audit, but that across-the-board layoffs would be out of the question. That puts the conference at a stalemate, at least for the time being.
Yet even if the conference could come to an agreement on those issues, the question of how to pay for the defense increases while also balancing the budget within 10 years looms large over the debate and is compounded by the likely eventuality that GOP leaders will need Democratic support to pass appropriations bills, an omnibus spending bill, or a continuing resolution.
Democrats have said they will not agree to large defense increases at the expense of social-program funding, and going deeper into domestic coffers to cut money for transportation, health research, or the arts would drive even many Republicans away from supporting spending bills.
Trump remains a wild card, as well, Cole said.
“Both those [groups] have been willing to do mandatory savings in the past. The problem is the president of the United States is probably not willing to do the kind of savings they’re willing to do,” he said. “So people either have to sit down and work through this to get to realistic numbers or we’re going to be in a continuing resolution, and there’s no defense buildup in a CR.”