Republican negotiators in the House and Senate announced a deal on a joint budget Wednesday that would cut domestic spending, increase defense spending and open a new door in the quest to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
The deal, which could be approved by the House and the Senate as early as this week, looks like the latest success in a recent flurry of dealmaking in Congress. Unlike the bipartisan deals in recent weeks, this budget is a Republican-only agreement for what they would like to accomplish, not a binding prescription for how Congress should allocate money.
Lawmakers must now pass appropriations legislation to actually fund the government — a process that will require tough compromise if Republicans hope to advance spending bills that President Obama is willing to sign.
“We hope to complete the budget conference report in the House and the Senate, and get going on the appropriations process,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) “I’m sure the Democrats will complain that we’re not spending enough on the domestic side, but all of that can be sorted out in the appropriations process.”
The Republican budget ignores Obama’s threat to veto any funding bills that lock in spending cuts for domestic programs. Instead negotiators opted for deep domestic cuts, nearly $40 billion in additional defense spending from off-book funds and a new attack on the president’s signature health-care bill.
Republicans chose to use a procedure known as “budget reconciliation instructions,” which allows the Senate to bypass the typical 60-vote majority needed to bring legislation to the floor. That maneuver would allow a simple majority to overturn the federal health-care law.
The budget slashes domestic discretionary spending by trimming away at several major priorities for Democrats. The final bill includes a reduction in funding for federal Pell Grants and housing programs for low-income earners, and cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps.
The final deal uses funds from the Overseas Contingency Operations fund, or OCO, which includes defense funds that are not traditionally considered part of the overall budget. Republicans used those funds to boost defense spending to over $563 billion, well beyond the level lawmakers agreed to under the 2011 Budget Control Act, commonly known as sequestration.
Republicans, including Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), said the additional defense spending drawn from OCO is necessary in light of ongoing military responsibilities in the world.
“We’ve had Ukraine, ISIS, Syria, Yemen and the whole deal in Iraq, and the president has decided he has to keep more troops in Afghanistan,” Sessions said. “Frankly, I think that justifies more OCO.”
The compromise scales back some of the deep domestic spending cuts proposed in the House budget but includes a $496 billion decrease in non-defense spending over the next decade.
The deal hit a hiccup Monday evening after Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) initially refused to sign the final report, citing concerns over the use of an accounting gimmick. The budget allows appropriators to shift $190 billion in unused money from mandatory programs over 10 years to pay for other spending.
“What I’d like for our budgeting process to do is to rid itself of a lot of the gimmicks that have been used in the past,” Corker said Tuesday afternoon.
The proposal is also a handy political document for Democrats looking to reestablish the narrative that Republicans in Congress are attacking low- and middle-class workers by cutting vital programs such as those for health care and education.
“Republicans are going to have to do these things on their own,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y. ) said Tuesday. “Democrats are not going to help you pass appropriations bills that lock in senseless, automatically triggered cuts that hurt the middle class.”
Republicans must decide whether they are going to pursue spending bills that fall in line with their budget wish list or if they are ready to discuss options for lifting caps on domestic spending to gain the support of Democrats.
Already, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who leads Senate Budget Committee’s Democrats, is calling on the White House to keep its veto promise and block any such spending bills that are approved in Congress.
“I think this budget is an absolutely disgrace,” Sanders said Monday evening as details of the plan emerged. “Clearly my hope is that as this budget moves into the form of appropriations bills that the president will take out his veto pen and make it very clear that he will not support any legislation based on the principles in this budget.”
Republicans acknowledge that the deal is a largely political document. It breaks down how Republicans would govern in their version of an ideal world. But, Sessions and other Republicans point out that this is the first time Congress has been able to agree on any joint vision since 2008.
“People might say this is not real, but the [Democrats] have done one in the last five years,” Sessions said. “It does require you to lay out how you’re going to manage the people’s money.”