Ryan Tested as Republican Faction Threatens to Upend 2017 Budget

  • House Freedom Caucus demands $30 billion in discretionary cuts
  • Leaders negotiating with group that challenged Speaker Boehner

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan talks to reporters on Jan. 12, 2016, in Washington.

Photographer: Pete Marovich/Getty Images

Key members of a rebellious group of House Republicans who helped usher Paul Ryan into the speakership are now raising objections to the path Ryan is setting toward a House 2017 federal budget.

Their demands leave Republican congressional leaders in a bind. 

If they agree to tear up a November deal with the White House on 2017 spending levels, that could lead to a stalled spending process at the very time the party wants to show its ability to govern. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in particular has argued that moving all 12 appropriations bills by the Sept. 30 deadline gives Republicans a chance at winning pre-election policy concessions from President Barack Obama.

Ryan alternatively could announce that the House can’t agree on a budget resolution this year and suffer a loss of face. After doing that, he’d have to rely on Democrats to cast the votes needed to put into effect the November deal’s $1.070 trillion spending level.

Doing that would be risky, because next January Ryan probably will need the roughly three dozen votes of House Freedom Caucus members to remain as speaker.

Negotiations continue behind closed doors following a marathon Tuesday night session with the speaker. The House Freedom Caucus hasn’t yet formally rejected the proposed budget plan being worked out by leadership and House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price of Georgia, and interviews with numerous members show varying degrees of opposition.

"There are real concerns -- real concerns," said Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, chairman of the House Freedom Caucus.

Jordan and three other leaders of the group -- Mark Meadows of North Carolina, Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, and Raul Labrador of Idaho -- appeared together Wednesday for a panel discussion at the Heritage Action For America’s Conservative Policy Summit in Washington.

"We’re being asked right now to vote for a budget at a level of spending none of us can support," said Mulvaney. "I hope there is a way out."

He said the House should adopt a budget resolution with the lower spending levels and then see if the Senate can live with it -- no sure thing given the number of vulnerable Republicans up for re-election in swing states.

Last year, the House and Senate agreed on a joint budget resolution with 2016 spending levels that were unacceptable to Obama and Senate Democrats. That led Democrats to block appropriations bills on the Senate floor; eventually a giant omnibus spending plan, Public Law 114-113, was enacted in December.

Ryan, speaking earlier in the day at the Heritage event, said he intends on early action on the House budget resolution. “We’re not going to wait until April to pass our budget,” he said.

He said that was because he wants to get action going early on the 12 actual appropriations bills. “We want to get them done before July. We have the party conventions in July.”

The House Budget Committee has planned on voting on the budget resolution -- a document that sets out 10 years of fiscal goals and doesn’t need to be signed by the president -- the last week of February.

While the goal remains for his committee to approve a budget this month, Budget Chairman Price said, “It’s a challenge." He said demands are not just coming from Freedom Caucus members but from other factions as well.

"It’s like a balloon. You squeeze one part and something pops out on the other side," he said.

As for the House Freedom Caucus, talks are continuing and its members said they expected to agree on a formal position in the coming days.

Meadows said the group is seeking commitments to move binding legislation such as on welfare policies. “Budget language is not going to solve this,” he said. “We are not there yet, we have a long way to go.”

Representative Marlin Stutzman of Indiana, a budget committee member, said without concessions he couldn’t vote for the spending levels Ryan is proposing.

"We want something tangible, something that has value," said Stutzman, who plans to author a conservative Republican Study Committee budget this year that cuts discretionary levels even below those called for prior to the November deal.

Other members of the Freedom Caucus struck a harder line.

“We are at an impasse with leadership," said Matt Salmon, an Arizona Republican. "I am not comfortable with those numbers at all.”

“Unfortunately," predicted John Fleming of Louisiana, “There may not be a budget."

"Our position is we didn’t vote for the omnibus, but are now being asked to vote for this spending," said Fleming. "That is not rational."

Salmon said that the future year savings used in the November deal were "phony," and he would have to see real savings enacted into law to pay for the discretionary spending increase.

Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama said he wouldn’t vote for the November levels under any circumstances and Freedom Caucus member Tim Huelskamp of Kansas said nothing leadership has put on the table yet has swayed him.

For the budget committee, the uprising by the Freedom Caucus is only complicating an already difficult task for writing a budget resolution this year. Worsening deficit forecasts from the Congressional Budget Office means staff are being forced to come up with hundreds of billions more in potentially unpopular cuts over 10 years to meet a balanced budget pledge.

Bill Flores of Texas, the Republican Study Committee’s chairman, said that his group intended to go below agreed-on spending caps, which could trigger $30 billion in cuts. Flores wouldn’t speculate on where the cuts could land, though he did say that budget-wringing requires "prioritizing," and that national security concerns are now a top-shelf priority.

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