Some of the most conservative members of Congress say they are ready to vote for a budget that would — at least on paper — balloon the deficit to more than $1 trillion by the end of the decade, all for the sake of eventually repealing the Affordable Care Act.
In a dramatic reversal, many members of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus said Thursday they are prepared later this month to support a budget measure that would explode the deficit and increase the public debt to more than $29.1 trillion by 2026, figures contained in the budget resolution itself.
As they left a meeting with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on Thursday, some of the conservatives said that spending targets contained in the budget for fiscal 2017 are symbolic. The real goal of the budget legislation, they argued, is to establish an opportunity to finally make good on GOP promises to repeal President Obama’s signature domestic achievement.
“I just came to understand all the different ideas about where we go next,” said Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.), a member of the House Freedom Caucus that typically opposes massive spending increases. Schweikert now says he will probably vote for the budget resolution.
The growing conservative consensus comes nearly one year after the approximately 40-member group announced it would rather torpedo the entire budget process than vote for a fiscal blueprint that increased spending without balancing the budget.
But fiscal discipline now seems to be taking a back seat to the drive to repeal Obamacare.
“I’d like to see a replacement on Obamacare pretty quick,” said Rep. Brian Babin (R-Tex.). “Would I like to see [the budget] balance? Certainly. Absolutely. I’ve got 13 grandchildren, and I don’t want to see them buried under $30 trillion of debt.”
The Freedom Caucus has not taken an official position on the budget — 80 percent of them need to agree to do so — but many members said the dramatic spending increases created in the 2017 budget measure were only technicalities. They contend that voters understand some sacrifices need to be made to gut the health-care law.
Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) told reporters that the group will decide Monday on an official position on the budget.
“The real question is: Does it change the top line number on what we’re spending?” Meadows said. “Does it increase spending — or does it become a vehicle that maintains our current spending levels and allows us to repeal” the Affordable Care Act?
Other Republicans, including Paul, still question whether it is ever acceptable to support deficit increases, no matter how symbolic. Paul described Thursday’s meeting, which attracted 23 Freedom Caucus members and Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), as a first step.
“I wanted to make sure that conservatives in the House knew that, together, we can have impact and influence on what the budget will be,” Paul said. “I heard one person say that, well, we’ll vote for this now, but we won’t in four months. My point is that the Republican leadership will come back and say, ‘You already voted for it once; why not vote for it a second time?’ ”
Many in the conservative clique emerged ambivalent about Paul’s argument.
“I’m not staking out a position on the budget just yet,” Babin said after the meeting.
Mainstream Republicans are urging their typically implacable conservative colleagues to turn a blind eye to the spending numbers for now. Republican leaders are using a complicated quirk of the budget process to repeal Obamacare without the threat of a blockade by Senate Democrats.
Budget legislation is considered under special rules in the Senate that allow a simple majority of 50 senators rather than the normal 60 needed for almost everything else. There are 52 Republicans in the Senate this year, and there is virtually no hope that any Democrat would agree to dismantle Obama’s health-care law.
The budget introduced this week in the Senate includes instructions for committees to begin repealing the ACA. GOP leaders want Republicans to focus on language requiring members of four committees to produce bills seven days after Trump’s inauguration that each would save $1 billion over a decade by slashing ACA elements.
Not all conservatives are convinced. Paul is joined by deficit hawks like Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) who worry their voters won’t countenance even a seemingly meaningless vote to increase the deficit.
“If you’re going to do a symbolic budget resolution, why not put in a good number?” Brat asked Thursday. “People are very cynical, and I need a message so I can go back home with a straight face.”
The collective shrug from other conservatives is the latest evidence that Paul’s protest would be a familiar, lonely one. His floor speech attacking the budget measure for making no attempts at deficit reduction — it projects a $9 trillion increase in the debt by 2026 — was preempted by statements from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), pledging to vote for the resolution anyway.
That position has made Paul one of very few Republicans still talking about the debt as a national crisis worth building legislation around. During his presidential campaign, which ended after the 2016 Iowa caucuses, Paul made a number of attempts to draw attention to the national debt and to promote his annual plans to balance the budget with steep spending cuts.
Months later, most of the Freedom Caucus — 17 members — voted against the GOP’s 2016 budget on debt-reduction grounds. The new budget resolution makes even fewer concessions on debt reduction. For Republicans who frequently described the debt as a threat to their children’s futures, it’s a difficult sell.
“We want to keep in mind the overall picture, both the deficit and how tired people are Obamacare,” said Rep. Randy Weber (R-Tex.). “I do think there’s a danger of the Republicans actually owning this.”