Freedom Caucus Raising the Stakes on Budget

House conservatives won’t support defense increases without other cuts, and they warn against passing a “pro forma” budget just to get tax reform.

House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Daniel Newhauser
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Daniel Newhauser
June 8, 2017, 8 p.m.

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.”

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