Clash of fiscal, defense hawks pushes budget past deadline
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.