The ingredients are all coming into place for a tense, unpredictable 2017 budget showdown and maybe even a shutdown, thanks to a Republican Party energized by Tuesday’s two House victories.
The wins by GOP candidates in special Georgia and South Carolina elections sent a message that cooperating with Democrats was not necessarily a job requirement. It also emboldened conservatives seeking more clout in the GOP caucus. And that could make crafting a federal budget tougher.
Republican budget-writers hope to ready a plan by July 4, a blueprint that will still need approval by both the House and Senate. Congress, though, only plans to meet for three weeks in July, then recess until after Labor Day.
Once, or if, the outline is passed, Congress is supposed to pass individual spending bills covering different agencies, then have them signed by President Donald Trump. If agencies are not funded by October 1, the start of fiscal 2018, they would have to shut down.
Republicans were jubilant Wednesday thanks to Karen Handel’s win in the intensely-watched Georgia congressional special election, as well as Ralph Norman’s victory in a South Carolina special election.
Georgia was the big prize. Democrats had banked heavily on Jon Ossoff to give them momentum, to plant doubts in vulnerable Republicans about their re-election prospects next year – and therefore work on a bipartisan basis to keep the government running. Trump's approval numbers have hovered around 36 percent, and 23 GOP congressmen are running in districts Trump lost last year. Democrats need net gains of three seats to control the Senate and 24 seats to win a House majority next year.
While Handel's victory came in a district that's elected Republicans to Congress since the 1970s, it reshaped Republican thinking in two ways, and neither is likely to make the already-convoluted budget process easier.
"It’s good news, but that’s what we should be doing anyway," Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus said of pushing through GOP legislation without Democratic help. "We ran on a platform so we need to get moving on that...”
Part of that platform involves overhauling the nation’s tax system. Republicans are planning on using a procedural maneuver that would allow them to pass a tax package in the Senate that would prevent Democrats from blocking it.
But the maneuver, called reconciliation, can’t be utilized until the House and Senate pass that budget outline.
On the morning after Handel’s victory, House Republicans met behind closed doors and considered several budget options. They plan to meet again Friday.
Several options were offered. "So what we're trying to do is figure out how can we in this constrained budget process get our appropriations worked on and have the House go forward,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
There is talk that Congress could agree to a stopgap spending plan to keep the government running this spring while they negotiate spending plans, but that would infuriate conservatives aligned with Trump and the budget he proposed last month. That budget has deep domestic spending cuts and a big boost in defense money.
The party is already under pressure from diehard conservatives. They're still upset after being perceived of acquiescing to Democrats in approving a budget last month for the rest of this fiscal year that largely kept spending at 2016 levels.
Military hawks, such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and House Armed Services Committee Chair Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, want more money for defense, beyond the $54 billion proposed in his 2018 budget proposal.
Deficit hawks are howling that additional defense funding can’t occur without those additional domestic cuts. But several moderate Republicans – and a few conservatives – complained when Trump’s budget proposal included steep cuts in agencies and programs such as the National Institutes of Health, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the State Department.
Spending is supposed to be contained in a dozen different bills, each dealing with a different subject. In search of consensus, Republicans are pitching different paths to a budget. Rep, Tom Graves, R-Ga., a House Appropriations Committee member, has suggested that the House pass one big spending bill laden with GOP priorities, which would likely fail in the Senate.
Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., recommended that Congress pass a bipartisan budget agreement before August similar to previous ones crafted by Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., in 2013 and former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in 2015.
"It’s either going to end in a year-long continuing resolution or a bipartisan omnibus at the end of the year," Dent said after pitching the idea to fellow Republicans. "It doesn’t matter what anybody says, that how its going to end. Get the budget agreement now, put the debt ceiling in it, call it a day."
But several fiscal lawmakers, buoyed by Tuesday’s success, signaled that they won’t sign off on a budget plan until they see all the details.
"They might pass it out of committee, but there aren’t 218 votes on the budget today," said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., Freedom Caucus chairman. "We don’t have an agreement yet."