By comparison with the Senate, the US House of Representatives has been looking pretty good recently. With the messy battle to pass the American Health Care Act in the past, and their neighbors in the other chamber making a mess of things in their fight over the Better Care Reconciliation Act or the Obamacare Repeal Reconciliation Act, or whatever they may or may not vote on next week, the House right now looks like the sensible half of the federal legislative branch.
But probably not for long.
One of the several major tasks facing the House GOP in the next two months is passing a 2018 budget. This must happen at the same time a deal to raise the debt ceiling is being negotiated. Lawmakers are battling over a bill to approve a major military spending increase, and President Trump is still trying to get his appointees seated at federal agencies.
The budget bill is of particular importance because so many other things are contingent on it passing. Most immediately, if it fails, the executive branch could wind up facing another politically damaging shutdown. But the long-term consequences to the GOP could be even more significant, especially given the very real possibility that efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act appear to be stumbling to an embarrassing halt.
From the beginning, the Republicans’ plan has been to attach a major tax reform proposal to a reconciliation package for the 2018 budget. Tax reform is, arguably, more important to many powerful elements of the GOP donor base than the ACA repeal ever was, and that reconciliation package making it possible can’t be introduced if there is no 2018 budget resolution.
The GOP's failure to repeal and replace Obamacare after seven years of promising to do just that is a serious blow to the party’s credibility as a governing majority. But to fail on both the ACA repeal and tax reform would be absolutely damning. So, it has to cause some heartburn in the Republican leadership offices when news reports, such as this one in Politico on Thursday, and this one from The Wall Street Journal show that the current House budget proposal may not have the votes to pass.
Not surprisingly, the problems with the budget bill look as though they reflect the same general differences within the GOP that bedeviled House leaders during the debates over the AHCA. One one side, House Speaker Paul Ryan is dealing with the House Freedom Caucus, the assemblage of hard-right lawmakers from very safe Republicans districts. In general, these two dozen or so lawmakers suffer little punishment from their voters for bucking House leadership, just as long as they are doing it in the name of conservatism.
The budget, which passed the House Budget Committee on a party-line vote Wednesday, is already facing objections from Freedom Caucus members who believe it doesn’t do enough to cut federal spending, particularly in the area of entitlements.
At the other end of the GOP spectrum are the members of the Tuesday Group who are as moderate as any members of the House GOP come in an age of political polarization. Generally hailing from less doctrinaire constituencies, they are not nearly as keen as their Freedom Caucus colleagues about slashing social safety net spending in order to make room for tax cuts or to lower the budget deficit.
The problem for House leadership is that neither of these groups, theoretically, at least, has the numbers to block a budget bill on the House floor. (Assuming the GOP budget proposal doesn’t get any Democratic votes. Which it won’t.) And, making matters worse, any steps taken to ease the concerns of one group are likely to alienate the other.
To be sure, the leaders of the House faced the same problem with the AHCA and ultimately managed to muscle it through, though with very few votes to spare. However, that was only a temporary victory. The Senate still hasn’t passed its own health care bill, and once it does, Ryan and the rest of the top House Republicans will be stuck trying to negotiate a reconciliation package that has to walk the same fine line between the Freedom Caucus and the Tuesday Group.
It’s possible that the same dynamic could play out in budget negotiations, meaning that there is a non-trivial chance that by September, Republican leaders in both Houses of Congress could be facing the possibility of failure on not just one, but both of the primary legislative objectives they brought with them into the current Congress.