House Conservatives Push to Blow Up Budget Deal

Some Republicans want to cut domestic spending below what leaders agreed to last month, one of several issues complicating omnibus negotiations.

AP Photo/Evan Vucci
March 12, 2018, 8 p.m.

Heading into the critical two-week stretch before the government-funding deadline, House conservatives are urging their leaders to renege on last month’s budget agreement and lower domestic spending.

The effort comes to the chagrin of Democrats and Republican appropriators, who warn that pursuing the strategy would lead to another continuing resolution or, even worse, a government shutdown.

Complicating GOP leaders’ job is the fact that the effort is just one of several pet issues members, outside groups, and even the White House are pushing them to impose on an omnibus bill. Leaders will have to walk through a legislative minefield to avoid a government shutdown before the March 23 deadline.

Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker said he and fellow RSC members are pushing leaders to lower domestic spending below the $591 billion agreed to in the budget deal. He said GOP leaders pursued a strategy of passing all-Republican bills on efforts to repeal Obamacare and cut taxes, so he would like to see them do so on spending, as well.

“It looks like we’ve kind of transitioned to a 218 strategy these days, so we’ll see what happens there, what leadership’s decision is,” Walker said. “Republicans can’t scream and shout for eight years in the Obama administration talking about deficits and debt,” and do little to lower spending now, he added.

Pursuing that strategy, however, would all but guarantee a short-term spending bill or even a shutdown, because House Democrats would object and the Senate would not take up a bill that shorts domestic programs, said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley. He said the idea represents a “bait and switch,” by which leaders agree to increase both domestic and defense funding but follow through only on the latter.

“The idea was to keep parity with military spending. The abrogation of that is an abrogation of the agreement that the speaker himself helped negotiate with the Senate,” Crowley said. “The fact that they’re even talking about that is demonstrative of the fact that they don’t know how to govern.”

House Budget Committee Chairman Steve Womack said the issue is not a new one.

“There’s a feeling that we can approve the caps as they are and just not spend it,” he said. “There’s concern about the spending. That’s why we had a whole lot of people vote against [the budget] and 11 people in my committee voted against it.”

To be clear, leadership aides do not believe leaders will pursue the strategy, but in an election year and with five continuing resolutions under their belt already, they may not want to risk angering conservatives.

To that end, leaders face another test in a conservative legislative health care push. Rep. Diane Black, who is running to be Tennessee’s next governor, is pushing leaders to include language in the omnibus that would allow health care workers at facilities that receive federal money to decline to participate in abortions.

Meanwhile, Walker and RSC members are also looking at ways to chip away at Obamacare through the appropriations process. That could be done by preventing the inclusion of any funding for insurance risk mitigation, also known as cost-sharing reductions.

“The speaker knows the objections of most conservatives on that particular issue,” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said.

Walker and Meadows are backed up by a coalition of conservative groups that sent a letter to Republican leaders Monday calling for them to “reject taxpayer bailouts for Obamacare and private health insurance companies, particularly in upcoming government spending bills.”

On the other side of the issue, however, are Democrats and moderate Republicans who believe federal funding for risk management could lower individual premiums.

Further complicating the omnibus bill is the threat from President Trump to veto the bill if it includes funding for the Gateway Tunnel project, which would build new rail corridors under the Hudson River between New Jersey and Manhattan and is scheduled to begin in 2019.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster said the effort may be about putting political pressure on Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York. But he and other leaders said they are not clear what the president wants, guessing that Trump is using the issue to pressure Schumer into allowing funding for border security.

“I think they want Schumer to give something, so if Schumer wants it he’s going to have to play ball somewhere,” Shuster said. “Schumer wants $30 billion. The president wants a wall, or whatever he wants.”

Other Republicans are more indignant. One appropriator, speaking on background, said it would be difficult to zero out money for the tunnel because it exists in the form of a larger fund, all of which would have to be reduced to meet the president’s request. Further, the legislator added, there is no coherent policy objective in canceling a project that serves important transportation needs.

“What’s the policy there? Because you don’t like Schumer?” the legislator said. “If somehow we can’t put that money in, that’s going to piss off a lot of people. Only one of them is Schumer.”

Indeed, New Jersey Republicans—including House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen— have indicated funding Gateway is a major priority. They wrote a letter to Speaker Paul Ryan asking that he maintain the project’s funding.

Adding to the uncertainty are various other pet issues being pursued by GOP members. For instance, Rep. Kristi Noem, who is running for South Dakota governor, is looking to include an online-sales-tax bill, and Rep. Charlie Dent wants to include language that would allow the Export-Import Bank to operate despite conservative objections.

Appropriators hope to file text for the omnibus by the end of the week, but it is possible that a short-term continuing resolution could be needed to give leaders more time to negotiate.

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