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Fight Between GOP House Chairs Imperils Budget Deal


A fight between House Republican chairmen is threatening to upend a tentative budget deal enabling the chamber to take the first steps toward tax reform, forcing the budget panel to cancel plans to begin work this week.

Republican leadership and House Budget Committee Chairwoman Diane Black (R-Tenn.) reached a fragile agreement with defense hawks over the weekend, defusing a contentious matter over Pentagon spending that had held up the fiscal blueprint for weeks.

But several committee chairmen are now balking at the second part of the deal: a promise of about $50 billion in additional cuts to mandatory programs to make those defense increases more digestible for conservatives.

The pushback from chairmen, including Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) and Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.), was so strong that the budget panel late Monday night halted plans to unveil its sweeping fiscal blueprint this week, two GOP budget sources told POLITICO.

The delay pushes back the committee’s long-awaited markup until at least July.

“It’s balancing what we need to get it out of committee, but also what it takes to get us in a place where it can pass on the floor,” one GOP source familiar with the budget said late Monday. “That requires a little bit more negotiation and work on everybody’s part.”

The sources said Monday evening that Black still believes she has enough votes to pass the budget resolution out of committee, with an ambitious goal of a total of $200 billion in real mandatory cuts over 10 years.

But they say Black is holding off until she can persuade other House GOP chairmen to willingly carve the extra $50 billion out of their own programs, so that she can have the votes on the floor.

“You have a couple committees that are kind of stonewalling, that are saying, ‘We’ve got nothing here,’ so that’s going to be revisited, to say, ‘Guys, you’ve got to be part of the team here,’” Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker (R-N.C.) said last week, when the chairs’ spat began taking off in earnest.

The committee is no longer committing to a specific timeline, but a second GOP budget source said Black remained just as determined to get the budget to the floor. She’s meeting one-on-one with recalcitrant chairmen to lobby them to support the additional cuts to mandatory spending, cajoling that could take a few more days.

“She is 100 percent committed to doing this,” the source said, adding that if GOP leaders decided to push a “shell” budget instead of a full budget resolution to enable tax reform, “a lot of members are going to revolt on that.”

At the crux of the holdup are chairmen, like Conaway and Walden, who don’t want to slice billions of dollars from programs in their own jurisdiction. Some don’t want to give away valuable offsets that could be used for their other legislative priorities, like Conaway’s upcoming farm bill.

“I’ve been making our case as to why leaving us alone … makes the most sense for the struggles that we face during the farm bill and … the horrible circumstances that production agriculture finds itself in right now,” Conaway told reporters recently.

The mandatory program cuts have won strong support among conservative lawmakers who are eager to target entitlement programs that are off-limits in the normal appropriations process.

The idea has become so popular that several budget members say they’ll only vote for a fiscal blueprint that includes those big mandatory cuts, putting leadership in a tight spot. Other panel members are flat-out frustrated, venting privately that GOP leaders should let the panel do its job.

“The Budget Committee feels the need to do this, or we’re just going to get dealt out of the process. We’re the ones who ought to kick it off,” Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a senior House Republican, said recently. “The budget committee does not want to be in the situation of being the first budget committee ever — that’s Republican — to not produce a budget.”

Meanwhile, the House Budget Committee is running up against its own deadlines. Budget writers had hoped to release their blueprint as soon as Wednesday with a markup slated for Thursday, setting up a full vote in the House before the Fourth of July recess.

That’s no longer possible.

Any more delays could keep the House budget resolution — already months behind its usual timeline — from ever reaching the floor, lawmakers say. GOP appropriators have quietly warned they’re willing to informally set their own spending limits if the House doesn’t pass a budget resolution soon.

Black has been clear she intends to press ahead even if it means stepping on toes.

“We are very determined we are going to get a budget done this year because we need to. We need to show the American people that we can govern,” Black said Monday evening. She said she wanted an agreement as soon as that night, but that there were remaining disputes to settle with committee leaders: “I am still talking to major players to make sure we have what we need in order to move it forward.”

Without a budget, Republicans can’t unlock the budget tool that would allow them to write a filibuster-proof tax reform overhaul.

Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), who sits on the budget panel, said members are missing the biggest point: that a delay and lack of resolution could cripple tax cuts. Republicans need a budget to do tax reform — and if they don’t, they could lose the House next fall, he suggested.

“If we don’t do tax reform …” he trailed off, laughing and shaking his head. “You might not see us next year! And you need a budget to do that, to do tax reform, to get the rates down. That’s the issue.”

Passage of a full GOP budget, which would need to unite the party’s most vocal military supporters and its fiercest fiscal conservatives, would be a decisive victory for Black. The first-term chairwoman has spent months crafting a package that could pass within an increasingly fractious GOP Conference.

That vote will still be tough, even after months of arm-twisting by budget leaders.

Plenty of Republicans, including some close to leadership, remain skeptical about the required mandatory cuts. Because those savings would be tied to the same budget that allows Republicans to pass a filibuster-proof tax reform bill, the failure to actually produce those cuts could threaten the whole tax overhaul.

Black has also packed the budget with other conservative priorities that she hopes will be difficult for Republicans to resist in their first budget blueprint of the Trump era.

The GOP’s budget resolution would propose to balance the federal budget over a decade, rein in entitlement programs and infuse more money into the Pentagon, according to lawmakers and aides who’ve spent months drafting it.

It would hew closely to conservative budgets of years past, including the Medicare premium support model popularized by now-House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). It would also roll back huge sums of Medicaid spending while stripping hundreds of billions from anti-poverty programs.

Like past GOP budgets, big federal programs like food stamps, agriculture subsidies and Medicaid would be on the chopping block. But this time, those mandatory cuts could go into effect if the budget plan is adopted by Senate Republicans as well.

“I think this is a year where we can say we’re making progress. I’ve been here for almost seven years, and we have never done real deficit reduction. I’m excited about that,” Black said last week.

Source: Sarah Ferris and Rachel Bade, Politico

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