Ryan, Republicans grapple with alternative to Obama budget

WASHINGTON – Meet the new boss. Confronting the same tea party challenges as the old boss.

Speaker Paul Ryan is scrambling to avoid an embarrassing fiscal defeat this year in the face of a hard-right conservative revolt over last fall’s spending-and-tax deal. The same conservatives who forced John Boehner out as speaker are making life difficult for Ryan, signalling they’ll refuse to vote for an upcoming GOP budget plan that endorses the higher spending numbers from last year.

“We’re simply having the same kind of family conversation about how to proceed with the budget like we have every single year,” Ryan told reporters on Wednesday. “I’m confident the members will sort this thing out.”

The Wisconsin Republican has built a congressional career as the Republican Party’s budget savant, but Ryan is perhaps in his career’s most difficult bind as he tries to engineer passage of an alternative to President Barack Obama’s $4.1 trillion budget that he sent to Congress on Tuesday.

The question is whether to abide by last year’s hard-won budget pact, which added more than $80 billion to agency operating budgets over the current fiscal cycle and the upcoming 2017 budget year. Republican defence hawks combined with Democrats seeking relief from a squeeze on domestic programs to power the increases forward, and it was Boehner’s final major accomplishment as he cleared away unfinished business for Ryan.

Last year’s budget agreement applied to about $1.1 trillion in annual “discretionary” spending for day-to-day operations of the Pentagon and domestic Cabinet agencies. So-called mandatory spending such as Social Security, Medicare and health care costs under the Affordable Care Act is responsible for the rest of the $4 trillion-plus federal budget.

Last year’s budget deal passed with Democratic votes and was negotiated by the Obama White House. But the upcoming GOP budget — which would give the House and Senate Appropriations committees the money to do their work — must pass with nearly unanimous Republican support since it will also call for big, albeit nonbinding, cuts to domestic programs favoured by Democrats.

Many tea party Republicans, including the 40 or so members of the hard-right Freedom Caucus that engineered Boehner’s resignation and blocked Majority leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., from succeeding him, say they can’t go along with any GOP budget that endorses last year’s deal.

“I don’t think there will be many votes for the Boehner budget in the Freedom Caucus,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan.

On the other side are GOP leaders like Ryan, mainstream Republicans, and the GOP membership of the House Appropriations Committee. They say that adhering to last year’s agreement, which would provide for $1.14 trillion in appropriated funding for Cabinet agencies and overseas anti-terror operations, is the only way to revive the troubled congressional appropriations process. The 12 appropriations bills have often been bundled into a foot-tall, unamendable “omnibus” measure that gets rammed through at the end of the year.

A smooth appropriations cycle, however, requires bipartisan buy-in. And living within last year’s budget pact is the only way to ensure that both Democrats and Republicans will deliver votes for the 12 annual bills. Senate Democrats stalled the bills last year as they teamed up with Obama to successfully force Republicans to add money for their domestic priorities — and any move the go back on those increases would mean an immediate return of gridlock.

“In order to have a good, working, viable appropriations process we’re going to appropriate to these numbers because we have agreement on these numbers,” Ryan told reporters on Wednesday. “It’s very important.”

While many tea partiers want to rewrite last year’s agreement, the quiet majority of Republicans appear to want to stick to it.

“I believe the House must honour the agreement,” said GOP moderate Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania. “And a number of us are prepared to vote against the budget if that number’s changed.”

It’s unclear what would happen if the impasse can’t be solved. One option would be for Republicans to team with Democrats to rubber-stamp last year’s agreement and drop the idea of passing a broader budget outline, which would be embarrassing for Ryan, who has worked to unify the fractious House GOP gaggle. Also, failure to pass a broader budget plan would deny Republicans the opportunity to pass a special filibuster-proof budget bill this year or even preserve the option to pass an immediate repeal of so-called “Obamacare” if a Republican takes over the Oval Office in January.