Debt ceiling negotiations are struck in limbo, as House Republicans demand severe spending cuts without saying where they’d start. Pretty soon, though, their hands will be forced.
GOP lawmakers say they’re committed to adopting a budget plan for the coming fiscal year, which would reflect where they’d slash government funding. It’s a demand they’ve said President Joe Biden and Democrats must meet before they’ll agree to raise the debt ceiling in the coming months, a potential calamity as economic indicators already point towards recession.
Passing a budget is guaranteed to be a painful test for the new majority. It’s one thing to call for fiscal responsibility — it’s another to be the political face of program cuts. GOP leaders will have to thread the needle between members loath to cut Pentagon funding and conservatives like Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who say military cuts must be on the table.
At the same time, party leadership will have to ensure steep domestic cuts won’t hurt moderates back home, bruising members in vulnerable districts and threatening an already slim House majority. And in the center of what seems like a near-impossible effort — to draft a budget plan with broad GOP support — sits newly installed House Budget Committee Chair Jodey Arrington (R-Texas).
In an interview, Arrington acknowledged that it’s going to be a heavy lift for a conference deeply split by federal spending issues. If the budget measure ever makes it out of committee and to the floor, Republicans can only afford to lose four of their 222 votes.
“It won’t be easy,” Arrington said. But he added that he’s “looking forward to the challenge of pulling that 218 together so that we can know what it feels like to succeed, and know that we can succeed.”
Passing a budget resolution — which is technically non-binding — would set a “very defined measure of success” for Republicans, Arrington added, by laying out party demands and putting the negotiating onus back on Democrats in talks over hiking the nation’s $31.4 trillion debt limit.
Republicans in the upper chamber are also pressuring the House GOP to adopt a fiscal 2024 budget, particularly Senate fiscal hawks who want to adopt a measure that embraces military funding cuts, in addition to reductions to domestic programs.
“I think it’s going to be difficult,” Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) said of getting a budget through the House, even as he urged the GOP not to hold military funding “sacrosanct.” Adopting a budget would show that House Republicans “have their ducks in a row” as they pursue fiscal restraints, Braun added.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) echoed that sentiment, saying his House GOP counterparts have “a big task ahead of them.
“We want to do everything we can to support their efforts, but also encourage them,” Johnson added, “because the crucial aspect to what they need to do is they have to pass these things with Republican votes.”
At the same time, House Republicans have to mind the political headaches their fiscal choices will pose to their vulnerable members — which is particularly true when it comes to the messy internal politics of entitlement reform. Some of their members are hesitant to touch mandatory spending and others insist that reforms are necessary for the long-term solvency of programs like Social Security and Medicare.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) this week said Speaker Kevin McCarthy assured him that those programs are safe from cuts.
Many House Republicans are loath to take a knife to the Pentagon’s budget, however, and doing so would almost certainly jeopardize broad support for a GOP budget plan.
Despite all its potential to cause intraparty angst, a budget resolution isn’t a particularly detailed document. While it could detail the GOP’s vision for slashing spending over a decade, outline preferred discretionary spending limits, and instruct committees to work on taxes or mandatory spending changes, the budget wouldn’t outline cuts to specific programs.
Such a plan is considered a basic task of the majority party, but it often gets skipped during the annual budget process.
Drafting one is a high-stakes dance that many former Budget Committee leaders know all too well. That includes former House Budget Chair Diane Black (R-Tenn.), who shepherded the adoption of a budget resolution in 2017 — allowing Republicans to pass their party-line tax bill.
Black described it as a “nailbiter” of a vote that followed months upon months of navigating warring factions within the GOP conference. This time, Republicans may not have that kind of time, with a debt default threatening the U.S. in a matter of months, she warned.
“I think it’s a big lift,” Black said. “I don’t know, frankly, because of where they are right now … that they really have the time to dig in and do it that well. Maybe they do.”
“There definitely is a time element to how you get everyone on board, given what they’ve already been through with the leadership process,” Black added, referring to the 15-ballot speakership race that consumed the conference earlier this month.
Former Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), who chaired the House Budget Committee until he retired last year, watched his own budget resolution crash and burn on the floor in 2019, when Democratic leaders were forced to cancel a vote on the measure as progressives decried defense funding levels they deemed too high.
“Jodey Arrington is a really reasonable guy,” Yarmuth said of his successor. “He’s setting a bar that he may not be able to get over, and Jodey knows that, I’m sure. But they’ve committed to do it, so he’s going to have to try to do it.”
“When you have the margins that they have … it’s going to be very unlikely that they can bring a budget resolution to the floor that can pass,” Yarmuth added of House Republicans. “That’s the problem we always had.”
Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), now his party’s top member on the Budget Committee, echoed that point, saying that “getting 218 votes for a budget resolution is difficult under ordinary circumstances.”
Republicans “have a grueling battle ahead if they decide to pursue this unpopular path,” he said.