The House will try again this week to move ahead with its fiscal 2017 budget. Here are some reasons to watch as Republicans struggle for common ground on their fiscal priorities:
1. It’s the spending, stupid
The old Clinton campaign axiom can be modified to reflect why the budget resolution matters: spending.
The budget blueprint sets an overall goal for the fiscal year for discretionary spending that funds most government operations and departments, such as Interior and Energy, for regulators, including U.S. EPA, and land-use agencies.
But this year there is a split among House Republicans of where to set that level. The chamber’s GOP leaders want to abide by last fall’s budget deal that called for raising budget caps and setting overall spending at $1.07 trillion.
Conservatives so far have rejected that approach — without cuts elsewhere — and have said they want spending set $30 billion lower to the level it was before the funding restraints were lifted.
A $30 billion cut (about a 3 percent reduction) might not seem like much of a hit for a more than trillion-dollar budget. But the amount is nearly four times the size of EPA’s annual budget alone.
Moreover, if the House goes with lower funding, it would almost certainly doom chances for moving spending bills in sync with the Senate, which has already agreed to the $1.07 trillion level.
The appropriations gridlock would leave Congress in a familiar spot — forced to pass stopgap funding bills and then cobble together a late-year omnibus spending package.
2. Ryan’s big test
No congressional Republican has been more closely associated with budget policy over the past decade than House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). The erstwhile Budget chairman pushed and hectored his colleagues into adopting budgets in recent years, and now his first major political test as leader will be resolving the spending differences.
Ryan insists the current fiscal faceoff is no different from the "family conversation" the GOP has every spring on its way to passing the budget and vows this year will be no different. He says the House remains on course to adopt its budget by April 15 and to pass 12 appropriations bills by mid-July.
To do so, Ryan will have to bridge the gap between hard-line conservatives, who have pressed for the lower spending, and more mainstream conservatives and moderates, who are open to the increase.
A large part of the reason Ryan rose to speaker is his reputation for being able to span the divisions within the fractured GOP caucus. If Ryan falters in his first test and cannot pass a budget, it would be a significant setback for his goal of unifying the caucus. It would also be a personal setback for the fiscal disciple of Jack Kemp, who sees the budget resolution as an incubator for policy ideas.
A budget slip would not put Ryan’s speakership in jeopardy, but it would further embolden hard-liners to challenge him on other policies and legislation. It would show that not even the GOP’s political wunderkind is able to rein in the House’s renegade tea party Republicans.
3. Trying out ideas
Aside from setting spending levels, the budget blueprint also contains hundreds of nonbinding policy recommendations that serve as political statements and strategy test beds for both parties.
Ryan used the budget for years as a forum for building support for spending cuts in discretionary programs and making changes in entitlement programs. Those budget visions helped pave the way for eventual sequester spending caps that have cut about $200 billion in discretionary spending over the past five years.
But Ryan also found there are limits to bold proposals in budget plans, particularly for changes to entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security.
His past budget calls for privatizing Medicare opened him up to attacks from senior groups when he ran for vice president. One television ad in the 2012 campaign famously showed a Ryan look-alike pushing an elderly woman in a wheelchair off a cliff.
The House floor debate on the budget also offers the minority party and House caucuses, like the conservative Republican Study Committee and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the chance to propose their own budgets.
Those plans have no chance of passing but allow caucuses to get behind certain ideas — including green issues — and force lawmakers to take sometimes tough positions.
The CPC for example, has said it will propose a budget this year seeking $1 trillion to respond to the Flint water crisis and other municipal infrastructure needs as well as a $25-per-ton tax on carbon dioxide emissions (Greenwire, March 3).
The RSC will likely use its budget plan to test out ideas for a tax overhaul and make its perennial push for balancing the federal budget.
Sometimes ideas that start out in long-shot budget resolutions later are difference-makers in moving legislation.
A CPC budget idea first floated several years ago to cut a Federal Reserve dividend for banks helped to cover the costs of last year’s $305 billion highway and infrastructure projects bill.