Republican leaders are hoping for a smooth and speedy budget process in 2016. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wisc.) and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) are promising to release the GOP’s official spending blueprint within the next several weeks (Obama will release his own budget next week). But GOP leaders are battling a small group of conservatives who want them to retreat from last year’s budget deal with Obama and fellow Democrats, which increased spending by $30 billion over the coming year.
Some hard-line Republicans are quietly complaining the new budget should jettison the increases agreed to in the two-year deal. In response, McCarthy and other House Republican leaders are discussing ways to again turn to the reconciliation process that set up the Obamacare repeal vote, allowing conservatives to vote on priorities like overhauling the tax code and reforming welfare policy as a consolation for spending hikes.
“We haven’t looked at exactly what reconciliation would be used for,” McCarthy told reporters on Monday. “There are a lot of opportunities out there.”
The budget process also marks a key test for Ryan, who promised conservatives who helped elect him that he would institute regular budget order and listen more closely to their demands. Ryan supported the $1.1 trillion budget deal, despite calling it a “crap sandwich” and promising to slash spending and balance the budget in ten years. The former Budget Committee chair’s previous budgets included sweeping proposals to overhaul entitlement programs while also cutting taxes.
But it’s unclear if Ryan can meet conservative demands. That task was made more difficult last month when the Congressional Budget Office announced the deficit is expected to climb to $544 billion this year. The $105 billion increase was mostly due to tax cuts enacted as part of the budget deal Ryan helped pass last year.
And McCarthy on Monday tried to tamp down talk of a GOP proposal that would decrease the spending agreed to in last year’s deal. He argued the best way to slash spending is to reform entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. The upcoming budget should be focused on balancing the existing commitment, he said.
“We all know the big problem is entitlement and mandatory” spending, McCarthy said. “I look to us sticking to the number we have.”
Last year, GOP leaders used reconciliation as a safety valve to deflect conservative steam from the budget process, and there are signs they may need to do so again.
Unlike typical legislation, budget reconciliation bills cannot be filibustered in the Senate where Republicans have a 54 to 48 majority. But the political context is different in 2016, with a lame duck Congress and president. Obama would likely veto a bill that aims to undermine policies passed during his presidency. Lawmakers may be better off waiting to work with the next president.
Right now, the fight is over how — or whether — to spend the $30 billion spending hike in last year’s budget deal. Obama will outline his vision for how to spend the additional money when he releases his fiscal 2017 budget. Obama is also expected to include expanded funding for computer education and cancer research in his pitch.
Republicans want their budget bid to be focused on cutting spending and ending the deficit.
“It’s so important that we hit the ground right this year,” said. Rep. Ted Yoho, (R-Fla.). “Thirty billion dollars, that’s a ton of money,” he added.
He said nobody liked being forced to pass a massive omnibus spending bill last year — explaining that passing this year’s budget is the first step to preventing that from recurring.
“I would see the budget committee getting done at the end of February and having it on the floor in March.” McCarthy predicted.
Then, Congress would turn to writing the 12 annual appropriations bills.
Yoho said the only way the spending increases spelled out in the 2015 deal could be acceptable is if they are offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget. Yoho said he was confident that Ryan has a vision for making that happen.
But vague promises might not be enough for conservatives, who expect leaders to pursue a more conservative agenda this year — especially Ryan. Several members of the House Freedom Caucus say they want leaders to challenge Obama on basically all of his proposals, including the budget.
None of the most conservative House members voted for last year’s budget agreement, which was spearheaded by then-House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on his way out of the job.
“There’s a lot of pushback against this higher number,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.).
Mulvaney said he and most conservatives wouldn’t even consider voting for
“Why would you vote against the  budget deal, against the omnibus and then vote for this new budget that reinforces the things you already voted against?” he said.
Republican budget leaders and aides said they may not like adding $30 billion to an already strained federal budget. But they conceded the deal passed last year is now law.
“We can’t walk away from that commitment,” Senate Budget Committee Chair Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) told reporters last month.
Mulvaney said the House budget reflects Republican promises to cut spending, even if it means the spending bills that pass later this year still include the $30 billion increase.
“That’s fine, I’m sure that’s happened before,” Mulvaney said. “We have to find a budget we can pass.”
McCarthy avoided offering any specific explanations of how the upcoming budget would stick to previous commitments. He said he and Ryan met with House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.) and they are looking to move things as quickly and collaboratively as possible.
“We are looking over all that we want to balance,” McCarthy said. “We’ve found ways that we can find the savings.”