House conservatives are closing ranks as the next battle over the federal budget looms.
They’re pushing Republican leadership for a budget that lowers the top-line spending number and reflects conservative policy priorities. They want what Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., called “a budget that Republicans support.”
First they’ll have to scrap the numbers negotiated by outgoing House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and President Barack Obama last October. The majority of Republicans opposed that agreement (167 compared to 79 supporters).
For members of the House Freedom Caucus, the Boehner-Obama budget is a non-starter because it increases spending levels by $30 billion above limits established in the 2011 Budget Control Act.
“One hundred fifty [Republican] members of the house … voted against [the Boehner-Obama agreement],” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who leads the House Freedom Caucus, at Thursday’s Conversations with Conservatives, hosted by The Heritage Foundation. “Thirty-five Republican senators voted against it. And now we’re being asked to affirm that number? … I mean, come on. Common sense says, let’s write a budget that reflects what the American people … sent us here to do.”
Rep. Raúl Labrador, R-Idaho, struck a similar note.
“The reality is that there is only one reason that Donald Trump won a huge number of votes on Tuesday,” Labrador said of the New Hampshire GOP primary. “And it’s because the American people don’t trust the Republican Party, that we will do the things that we said we’re going to do.”
We’ve been saying for five years, since I’ve been in Congress, that we’re going to balance the budget in 10 years. We’re on year number six right now, and we’re still kicking the can down the road. And I think we need to start showing the American people that we’re serious. And the way you show the American people that you’re serious is by the budgets that you pass, by the legislation that you pass.
And I think it’s time for us to start acting like Republicans, not just saying that we’re Republicans.
In an interview with The Daily Signal after the event, Jordan outlined the caucus’ vision: “I have one simple, basic goal: Republicans should unify around a conservative budget and an appropriations process that demonstrates how Republican priorities differ drastically from where Democrats want to take us—plain and simple.”
But House leadership and more centrist Republicans disagree. They say that starting from square one sets Congress back. This week, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., warned that any delay caused by revisiting the budget agreement makes it less likely that Congress will be able to return to regular order.
Amash said that that “idea that the number is set in stone and that it can’t be a Republican number is ridiculous.”
Jordan dismissed that sentiment as inconsistent with recent budget precedent.
Rattling off a “brief history” of recent budget negotiations, Jordan pointed to three times in the last three years that the top-line number was increased. “This idea that whatever the number is, we’ve got to follow it, we have never done that,” Jordan said. “Are you kidding me?”
Last month, the Congressional Budget Office forecast a budget deficit of $544 billion this year and an additional $9.4 trillion in deficit spending over the next 10 years. The federal debt this month topped $19 trillion.
Jordan says he wants Republicans to acknowledge those numbers and “write a budget that reflects the environment we’re in.” The national debt, he said, “is killing us.”
Jordan will have an opportunity to make his pitch during a closed-door House GOP meeting Friday morning before lawmakers skip town for Presidents’ Day recess. In what’s widely being considered Ryan’s first big skirmish with House conservatives, the new speaker will make his competing pitch for the old budget numbers.
Ryan has won high praise from the Freedom Caucus for his willingness to hear members’ concerns. Last week, he met with the group to talk budget plans over brews at a private “beer summit.”
So far, the speaker’s effort has been warmly received. And Labrador gives leadership “kudos” for that ongoing communication but expressed frustration with the end product.
“If we can’t find $30 billion to save in a $4 trillion budget,” Labrador said, “we should hang our heads in shame.”
Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., said he wants to find that money by enacting one of the speaker’s office’s top initiatives, welfare reform. And Brat, who sits on the House Budget Committee, said he could support higher spending levels now for bigger savings later.
“The Boehner budget that we agreed to busted the caps by $30 billion,” he said while speaking at Conversations with Conservatives. “I can get to yes for that higher number this year if we have promises, in writing, to get to the big bold Paul Ryan agenda.”
But guarantees of future cuts—in writing or otherwise—aren’t acceptable to Labrador.
“Just a promise of a vote is not sufficient to me,” Labrador responded to Brat. “We’ve had vote after vote after vote on a bunch of different issues.” He noted that if Republicans and Democrats cannot find something “to cut somewhere in this budget, then none of us deserve to be here.”
Clarifying, Brat noted that “I’m not talking about an idea of it. It’d have to be something in writing where our leadership says it’s $30 billion, $80 billion over two years, or whatever.”