House conservatives don’t mind getting creative to find a solution to the ongoing budget standoff. Alternative ways to achieve actual savings work, they explain, but promises of future spending cuts do not.

At a gathering with reporters Tuesday, conservative leaders said they’re open to accepting higher spending levels now in exchange for spending reductions later.

Conservatives are at odds with Republican leadership in the House over top-line government spending levels. GOP brass has pushed a budget that sets spending at $1.07 trillion. But conservatives complain that number is out of touch with fiscal and political reality.

“Cut to the chase here. We’re spending too much money,” Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said. “People get that, so let’s focus on what’s real.”

Jordan, chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, and other lawmakers are open to finding a compromise, though.

“Our group is willing to go to the $1.07 [trillion] spending number,” Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., said, referring to leadership’s preferred budget total. “It has the votes in the [Republican] conference room, in my view, if you attach $30 billion worth of mandatory reforms to a must-pass piece of legislation.”

‘A Promise Isn’t Enough’

At the monthly Conversations With Conservatives event moderated by The Heritage Foundation, Jordan was pushed by reporters to detail those reforms. He said repeatedly, “They must be real.”

“Just a vote on something and a promise to fix a rule on something down the road isn’t enough,” Jordan said. “We’ve had all those kind of things before.”

Jordan also said he wants something that “actually saves money.”

For months, Republican leadership has struggled to convince the GOP conference to accept the spending level of $1.07 trillion. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has argued that if lawmakers pass a budget resolution at that number, they could pursue long-term conservative reforms and deficit reduction.

“That mentality kind of reminds me of a phrase that was popularized during the Vietnam crisis: You have to destroy the village to save it,” quipped Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz.

Both the Freedom Caucus and the larger Republican Study Committee both officially oppose any budget blueprint that sets spending at $1.07 trillion. Together, their ranks swell to close to 200 members in the 435-member House.  

Uncharted Territory

Still, there could be another way out of the spending standoff. House lawmakers could put a budget resolution on ice, Reps. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming and Thomas Massie of Kentucky said, while moving forward with a dozen individual appropriations bills.

That’s uncharted territory, since Congress never has attempted such a budget two-step. According to the 1974 Budget Act, the legislature first must agree on a spending level then allocate that money during the appropriations process.

Reversing that binary could get the budget process off the ground, the pair told The Daily Signal.

“Leadership is saying we have to end up at the $1.07 [trillion] number,”  Massie complained.

But he suggested that Congress use that spending level as a marker and follow “regular order,”  which he said “always results in a number lower than the cap.”

That would require Congress to kick its recent habit of wrapping all government spending authorizations into one comprehensive package—known inside the Beltway as an omnibus. Instead, lawmakers would follow regular order during the appropriations process.

That is, they would pass 12 individual spending bills and, potentially, have an opportunity to cut spending for particular programs.

Questioning leadership on federal spending (from left): Reps. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., Matt Salmon. R-Ariz., and Tim Huelskamp. R-Kan. (Photo: Jeff Malet for The Daily Signal)

Questioning leadership on federal spending (from left): Reps. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., and Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan. (Photo: Jeff Malet for The Daily Signal)

‘Do We Have the Votes?’

Though an advocate of regular order, Ryan said he is not ready to put the budget on ice.

“We want to do a budget, that’s very clear,” he said at a press conference Tuesday morning. “The question is, do we have the votes to pass a budget?”

And, Ryan added, while committees can begin to plan how they’ll spend government funds, he is not ready to bring individual appropriations bills to the floor.

That question has delayed consideration of the spending resolution passed out of the House Budget Committee last week. Leadership has put off a vote on the issue to make more time to whip support for the blueprint, which sets spending at $1.07 trillion.

Brat, a member of the Freedom Caucus, indicated the House could pass a $1.07 trillion budget if leadership found an innovative way to get the Senate to sign off on $30 billion worth of immediate savings:

Last year, when leadership wanted to get [renewal of] the Export-Import [Bank] through, they did. How’d they do that? They attached it to a must-pass bill … so I’d like to see the same creativity for saving some money.

‘That’s a Problem’

Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., suggested attaching a savings package to legislation such as the Senate bill reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration.

But the upper chamber has made it more and more difficult for Ryan to convince a skeptical House Republican conference to get on board with a budget resolution. Any higher-spending deal, Jordan said, already has lost key selling points.

Senate Budget Chairman Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., has signaled that the Senate might not make a budget. If that happens, conservatives would lose an opportunity to achieve significant reforms using a tactic known as budget reconciliation.

One top appropriator, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has called for “clean” appropriations bills free of controversial conservative amendments called policy riders.

“That’s the context where we’re being asked to spend more money, and that’s a problem,” Jordan said.

This story was updated to correct Jordan’s first quote.