A push by House conservatives for deep spending cuts has split Republicans and kept them from meeting the April 15 statutory deadline for passing a new budget.
But even as GOP leaders say budget talks continue, there is no penalty for missing the deadline, and there are several reasons why it won’t matter whether the House fails to come to an accord in the coming weeks.
May 15 is coming
Under federal budget law, the House cannot move its fiscal 2017 spending bills for the first third of the year without a budget resolution in place to set top funding levels. But after May 15, the law allows for House leaders to call up those spending bills even without a budget.
With that loophole in mind, House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) is already having his committee approve spending bills, including for water, energy and agriculture programs. He said several will be ready for floor action by May 15.
Delaying action until mid-May would be a setback for House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the former Budget chairman, who wanted the chamber to have a budget passed in March and get an early start on floor action for spending bills. Most years, the House takes up appropriations bills by mid-April.
Now, Ryan might be willing to wait a little longer and avoid a budget altogether, if it allows him to avoid a messy floor fight with conservatives over spending levels.
It’s not lost on GOP leaders that the staunchest calls for deep budget cuts are coming from tea party Republicans who helped oust his predecessor, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio). They would have little to gain in picking a fight with them.
Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), a senior appropriator, said he believes a mid-May start without a budget would not preclude passing all 12 spending bills.
"The end result of this is what? We lose just about three weeks," said Dent of the delay in moving spending bills onto the floor.
A topline is already set
The chief purpose of adopting a budget is to set an overall discretionary spending goal for the coming year, but many lawmakers argue that’s already been done.
Congress cut a budget deal late last year that raised spending caps for both fiscal 2016 and 2017, setting the mark at $1.07 trillion for the coming year.
The Senate has already agreed to use that level in writing its spending bills, while House conservatives have balked and pushed for tens of billions of dollars in cuts instead.
House GOP leaders support the higher spending level and have allowed appropriators to go ahead and write the spending bills to meet the $1.07 trillion level.
Those leaders also stress that the Senate is already using that figure. Going with a lower number would not only be reneging on last year’s deal but would also make it harder to send spending bills to the president’s desk, say GOP leaders.
Indeed, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will begin moving spending bills on the floor this week — with the energy and water bill first up. McConnell said he does not know what might emerge from the House but said the Senate is prepared to "go forward on our own."
Omnibus bills are regular order
House Republicans insist they are eager to return to regular order and have Congress send as many of the 12 annual spending bills to the president as possible. They say having a budget, with spending priorities laid out to guide them, would make it easier.
But over the past few weeks, lawmakers have privately acknowledged their goal is a long-shot. Instead, they expect a highly partisan Congress and outgoing president to need a lame-duck session to finish its work via an omnibus spending bill.
Omnibus bills are based on a host of spending trade-offs, policy riders and tax provisions. The massive year-end deals all but ignore budget resolutions in favor of a broad package that can win just enough support and avoid any chance of a government shutdown.
Congress has not passed 12 individual spending bills in more than two decades. And in the past two presidential elections years, 2008 and 2012, it has not passed any stand-alone bills, opting instead for omnibus and stopgap measures.
House Democrats and Republican leaders are already finding ways to turn a budget bust into a political advantage.
Democrats have the more obvious course by bashing Ryan, who over the past decade has been his party’s top fiscal voice, for not being able to adopt a budget in his first try as speaker. They’ll also make hay of the GOP not being able to find consensus to make steep cuts.
"It’s unfortunate that division and dysfunction within their party prevented them from passing a budget, and I am deeply disappointed that many of their members are urging Republican leadership to abandon the spending levels Congress passed last year," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Friday in a message Democrats are likely to repeat in the coming weeks.
Ryan, meanwhile, is already trying to use the budget misfire to make the case for a broader overhaul of the process. A rewrite of federal budget law has been a pet project of Ryan’s for years, and conservatives also like the idea because they believe it would constrain federal spending.
"The current budget process is basically stacked in favor of more taxing and more spending and more big government. So I believe that the budget process overall needs to be overhauled to re-limit government and bring more transparency and accountability to the way we spend taxpayer dollars," Ryan said last week.
Expect to hear more on budget reform, not budget resolutions, in the coming weeks from GOP leaders, including a series of Rules Committee hearings on possible changes.