Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Trump Era Brings Moment of Truth for Republican Spending Hawks

  • Conservatives seek ‘ideological consistency,’ Schweikert says
  • Speaker Ryan narrowing early talks to areas of agreement

The most conservative House Republicans helped shut down the government and oust their own speaker in pursuit of cutting U.S. spending. Now they must decide whether to fight to hold Donald Trump to the same standard.

It’s potentially a risky move after the president-elect carried most of their districts by significant margins. Trump’s promises to invest in infrastructure and rebuild the military may put him in conflict with deficit hawks who sought to cut spending under President Barack Obama at every turn.

"Will there be disagreements? Of course," says Representative David Schweikert. But the Arizona Republican also jokes that, as in his own marriage, "There are going to be times where we’re shocked by how much we get along." Trump won Schweikert’s district by 10 points, according to data compiled by Bloomberg from official Arizona returns.

Just over a year ago, many of these conservatives had the political heft to oust John Boehner of Ohio from the speakership. Two years before that, they went against their party leaders to force a federal government shutdown in a failed effort to defund Obamacare. They also brought the U.S. to the brink of a potential default in a battle over raising the debt limit.

And while conservatives are publicly exulting that Trump’s victory will bring an era of true conservatism, the lack of details about his plans -- government spending and borrowing, health care, and taxes -- has left many of them simply hoping for the best.

"You try to stay consistent with your principles," Schweikert said. "It would be disingenuous on our part to believe something one day and change it the next day. So you’re going to try look for intellectual and ideological consistency."

QuickTake on U.S. Budget Deficit

Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist, said, "The deficit hawks will be watching him with the greatest wariness -- especially talk of the $1 trillion in infrastructure spending." He added, "They couldn’t swallow $780 billion from Obama. They will gag on a trillion."

Some conservatives, like incoming Freedom Caucus chairman Mark Meadows of North Carolina, are signaling a potential shift in their approach by suggesting they could accept a short-term increase in the nation’s debt. 

"As long as we have a plan to pay off, a real plan, then I think you will find a very pragmatic, reasonable acceptance of a plan to get us back to fiscal solvency," Meadows said.

Representative John Carter of Texas said adding to the nation’s debt under Trump is a potential dilemma.

"But if he does the things he says he is going to do about the economy, and if you are a believer of the Reagan Revolution, which I am, you will start seeing revenues grow and ultimately the debt issues won’t be as big," Carter said. "We have infrastructure issues that are real, we have military issues that are real, and we have a lot of other stuff that is real. You can’t get there without some monetary spending."

Conservative Core

Others, like the outgoing chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a group of about 170 House conservatives, urge caution against drifting from the party’s conservative core.

"If we as conservatives lose our bearings, if we go the wrong direction -- we’ve seen that in the past, we saw Republicans stray away in the ’70s, we saw Republicans stray away from the core principles during the Bush 43 presidency -- if we stray away, then that will provide the particle that allows the Democratic Party to come back," Representative Bill Flores of Texas warned at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington last week.

Sarah Binder, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said, "Keeping the Trump White House disciplined and focused on a core set of conservative priorities will be a critical challenge for Republicans if they seek to maintain their party’s conservative brand."

Carter agreed that is a potential dilemma, but added: "I can tell you the grassroots back home who are hard-core conservatives are greatly excited by Trump, and I campaigned for him."

Replacing Obamacare

Already some discord is brewing on issues such as how long it will take to replace Obamacare, and some Republicans are chafing at talk that it may take as long as three years. More head-butting could lie ahead on entitlement spending, Baker said. It’s a fundamental belief of conservatives that entitlement spending is out of control, while Trump has pledged to preserve Medicare.

Trump’s agreement to keep Carrier Corp. from moving hundreds of factory jobs to Mexico "looks like the dreaded Democratic industrial policy of the 1980 that had the government picking winners and losers," said Baker, who said he sees "a lot of daylight there between Trump and the GOP conservatives."

Some conservatives, such as Representative John Fleming of Louisiana, who is leaving Congress at the end of this year, say there are other areas of potential conflict, such as on intelligence gathering, surveillance and other Fourth Amendment issues. "There are libertarians who are watching," he said.

House Speaker Paul Ryan could be caught in the middle. Often critical of Trump during the campaign, Ryan has since been doling out flattery to the president-elect, who chose longtime Ryan ally Reince Priebus as his chief of staff. On Wednesday, Ryan gushed on CNBC that Trump shouldn’t be underestimated and "is surrounding himself with, yes, real Republicans, real conservatives."

Narrow the Discussion

Ryan is trying to short-circuit any early clashes between congressional conservatives and Trump by narrowing the early discussion to issues on which they can agree: Obamacare repeal, tax overhaul and deregulation. 

On areas where clear differences exist -- such as Trump’s call for a 35 percent tariff on businesses moving out of the country, an idea most Republicans oppose -- the public response is that they’ll work things out. "I think what he’s trying to get at is there’s a new sheriff in town and we’re really going to work at keeping jobs here," Ryan said Wednesday.

Representative Trent Franks of Arizona said of Trump, "Personally, I see the guy going in a good, positive direction," including with some of his early Cabinet picks. Trump won Franks’s district by 21 points, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

There was a brief flare-up of tension this week among House Republicans. Freedom Caucus members sought to force a floor vote on impeaching Internal Revenue Service chief John Koskinen, accused of impeding an investigation of the agency’s treatment of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. Republican leaders argued that a Senate impeachment trial could delay efforts to repeal Obamacare early next year, and the Freedom Caucus move was derailed on the House floor. Caucus leaders said their effort should have been seen as in line with Trump’s call to "drain the swamp" by making people in Washington accountable.

Common Ground

On topics such as free trade and tariffs, Meadows and Jordan are joining other House fiscal conservatives who say they are more focused for now on common ground with the incoming president than with what Jordan called their "perceived differences." And while Trump’s proposed $1 trillion infrastructure investment will be challenging, Meadows and Schweikert say there are ideas that wouldn’t simply add the cost to the national debt.

Many conservatives say they’ll demand that infrastructure spending be offset elsewhere in the budget, which could limit the program’s size or cut back on other priorities such as tax cuts.

What’s less clear is how Trump will react.

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