House hardline conservatives are threatening to oppose an emerging Republican budget, a move that threatens GOP leaders' efforts to move quickly on fiscal 2017 appropriations bills and avoid another massive omnibus spending package.
House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) warned if conservatives derail the budget then it's a "one-way ticket to an omnibus." He said a push for a lower budget would never fly in the Senate and would leave the chambers unable to agree on any individual spending bills as has been the case for years.
"It would be a black eye for all Republicans if we force ourselves into another omnibus," said Rogers, who noted year-end, catchall spending deals are unpopular with voters and the tradeoffs required to make them leave almost no room for policy riders important to conservatives.
On energy and environment issues, an omnibus would likely mean largely level funding for agencies like the U.S. EPA and the Energy and Interior departments and almost no room for new or expanded initiatives. Contentious GOP riders to block or delay Obama administration regulatory policies and fees would also likely drop out, as would any new proposals from the White House.
Rogers and GOP leaders are making a hard push to send all 12 individual spending bills to the president's desk. Congress has not done so in more than 20 years -- and has not even sent a single individual spending bill to the president's desk in the past five years.
But concerns from the House Freedom Caucus, a group of about four dozen of the chamber's most conservative lawmakers, over last year's budget deal may threaten the plan. The lawmakers are frustrated that the budget deal -- which raised spending caps by a combined $80 billion for fiscal 2016 and 2017 -- would ease stringent sequester caps that many conservatives see as a major fiscal achievement.
Freedom Caucus frustrations are becoming more pointed as the House prepares to move its budget resolution, a nonbinding spending blueprint, in early March. The budget work comes about a month earlier than usual this year, so House lawmakers can begin marking up the 12 spending bills in early April.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) spent two hours meeting with Freedom Caucus members Tuesday night in an attempt to get them to go along with a total of about $1.2 trillion in fiscal 2017 discretionary spending, the figure set by the budget accord.
"We always have these family conversations about what our budget should look like and how our budget should be rolled out and what its contents are. I'm actually trying to have that family conversation earlier than we ever have before," Ryan said yesterday trying to downplay a possible GOP budget fracture.
But many Freedom Caucus members offered no assurances to Ryan that they would back a budget that raises spending caps and became more vocal this week in their public criticism. Several sounded off at an event sponsored Tuesday by the lobbying arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, known as Heritage Action.
"We are being asked to vote for a budget at a level that none of us had supported," said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), referring to widespread GOP opposition to the two-year budget deal negotiated by outgoing Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) that needed Democratic support to pass. Indeed, 79 Republicans, about a third of the caucus, voted for the deal that raised overall budget top lines for two years.
Mulvaney added, "We should pass our own budget."
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), chairman of the Freedom Caucus, also criticized the coming budget proposal but did not rule out conservatives going along with it in exchange for policy provisions. He cited several broad policy issues Ryan has backed, among them welfare reform, a health care overhaul and rewriting the tax code that could entice conservatives.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a Freedom Caucus member who made waves last summer with a proposal to force Boehner to vacate the speakership, agreed that many conservatives aren't on board yet but said talks with Ryan have been constructive and said he was hopeful there would not be "major battles" within the party this year.
Several conservative leaders have talked about using budget reconciliation instructions to generate wide GOP support for the budget. Those instructions direct lawmakers to write separate policy bills that, as long as they cut the deficit, won't face the threat of a filibuster. Democrats used reconciliation to pass the health care overhaul, while Republicans have tried using it to repeal the health law.
Meadows said reconciliation instructions could be a useful tool but suggested conservatives might want more significant commitments, such as plans to shore up Medicare or entitlements over the long term.
Rogers said going after entitlement spending makes more sense given those programs, which also includes Social Security and Medicaid, account for two-thirds of the federal budget. He said they continue to grow -- even as the sequester has led to $190 billion in discretionary cuts over the past five years.
Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), a Freedom Caucus member who stunned the political world by knocking off then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a 2014 primary, said a deal is reachable.
"We want to get to yes, but a conservative budget is the key," he said.