Clash of fis­cal, de­fense hawks pushes bud­get past dead­line

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAVID SHERFINSKI

House Repub­li­cans emerged from a closed-door meet­ing Tues­day sig­nal­ing that they will miss an­other self-im­posed tar­get to vote on a bud­get this week, as long-run­ning dis­putes be­tween con­ser­va­tive bud­get hawks and pow­er­ful com­mit­tee chair­men leave the party po­lit­i­cally crip­pled.

De­fense hawks are de­mand­ing tens of bil­lions of dol­lars more for the Pen­tagon, and other top law­mak­ers are pro­tect­ing their turf. That leaves bud­get writ­ers strug­gling to de­liver enough cash to meet all those needs while find­ing enough room to cut the top num­ber.

Bud­get Com­mit­tee Chair­woman Diane Black, Ten­nessee Repub­li­can, said she sees a path to writ­ing a 2018 spend­ing plan but added that it will take more time.

“My goal is to get a bud­get this year, and we are work­ing hard at it and we are very close,” she said. “We have a ma­jor­ity here. We need to pass a bud­get.”

Some had hoped her com­mit­tee would hold votes on a bud­get this week. Repub­li­cans al­ready have bro­ken the April 15 dead­line set in law for pass­ing a bud­get.

In­stead, the spend­ing com­mit­tees have be­gun to work on the an­nual ap­pro­pri­a­tions bills with­out a bud­get.

Mrs. Black is look­ing at a basic di­vi­sion that would give do­mes­tic pro­grams $511 bil­lion in dis­cre­tionary spend­ing and re­serve $621 bil­lion for de­fense. Many law­mak­ers ap­pear com­fort­able with those num­bers.

But House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee Chair­man Mac Thorn­berry, Texas Repub­li­can, said the Pen­tagon will need at least $640 bil­lion — higher than Mrs. Black’s fig­ure and far more than President Trump’s re­quest of $603 bil­lion.

Mr. Thorn­berry and other de­fense hawks say the De­fense De­part­ment has been crip­pled by years of belt-tight­en­ing and needs the in­fu­sion to stay ahead of en­e­mies.

“I would like to see [a] $640 bil­lion top line for base bud­get,” Rep. Trent Franks, Ari­zona Repub­li­can, told The Wash­ing­ton Times. “I be­lieve that’s what’s needed.”

“I’m not sure ev­ery­body’s with me on that,” he said.

Even Mr. Trump’s $603 bil­lion fig­ure would blow through a $549 bil­lion de­fense spend­ing cap that law­mak­ers agreed to as part of a 2011 law that trig­gers au­to­matic across-the-board cuts, or se­questers, if the caps are breached.

Congress has voted to raise the caps in the past, but do­ing so re­quires at least 60 votes in the Se­nate to avert a fil­i­buster. Democrats, who con­trol 48 seats in the up­per cham­ber, would need to sign off on the terms of any in­crease.

“I think the in­ter­est­ing thing is we’re ap­pro­pri­at­ing and yet we don’t have an agree­ment with the Se­nate,” said Rep. Mark Mead­ows, North Carolina Repub­li­can and chair­man of the con­ser­va­tive House Free­dom Cau­cus. “And so I think it’s crit­i­cally im­por­tant that we have some bi­cam­eral dis­cus­sions on what those num­bers should be.”

More money at the Pen­tagon means less else­where in the bud­get, and law­mak­ers are strug­gling to find places to cut.

Rep. Michael K. Con­away, Texas Repub­li­can and chair­man of the Agri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee, said the fight isn’t so much over de­fense spend­ing but over what gets cut to clear the way for a $621 bil­lion fig­ure.

The food stamps pro­gram, where Mr. Trump has sug­gested deep cuts, falls un­der his ju­ris­dic­tion.

“Part of be­ing on the team is you fight your fight as hard as you can, you make your po­si­tions known as hard as you can, then when the po­si­tion’s made you sol­dier on and get it done,” Mr. Con­away said.

The spend­ing de­bate is par­tic­u­larly sen­si­tive this year be­cause it’s tied di­rectly to tax re­form, one of the Repub­li­cans’ defin­ing agenda items for the rest of the year.

Repub­li­cans need to write a 2018 bud­get in or­der to set up the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion process that would al­low them to over­haul the tax code with­out hav­ing to face a Demo­cratic fil­i­buster in the Se­nate. It’s the same process they are us­ing to try to re­peal Oba­macare, based on the 2017 bud­get.

But pass­ing a bud­get is al­ways tough be­cause it de­mands lim­its to spend­ing.

If law­mak­ers cut too deeply from non­de­fense pro­grams in the pur­suit of cut­ting taxes, then the po­lit­i­cal ads prac­ti­cally write them­selves, said Rep. Charles W. Dent, Penn­syl­va­nia Repub­li­can.

“You run the risk of the very sim­ple po­lit­i­cal at­tack. … We’re cut­ting taxes, busi­ness taxes, and then we’re [at] the same time po­ten­tially weak­en­ing safety net pro­grams for lower-in­come peo­ple,” he said.

House Mi­nor­ity Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Mary­land Democrat, said the Repub­li­can de­lay pushes Congress closer to a gov­ern­ment shut­down, which could hap­pen if law­mak­ers can’t agree on spend­ing bills by the end of Septem­ber.

“It is deeply con­cern­ing that Repub­li­cans seem more fo­cused on the bud­get process merely as a ve­hi­cle for en­act­ing par­ti­san tax re­form through rec­on­cil­i­a­tion rather than be­cause bud­gets are how Congress sets pri­or­i­ties for our na­tion,” Mr. Hoyer said.

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