Republicans have little room for error in their bid to pass a budget, and sequestration is forcing a rethink of conventional priorities.
House Republicans' internal budget negotiations are in their infancy, but the central challenge is already coming clear: Defense hawks are demanding that military spending gets relief from looming, mandatory spending cuts imposed by the sequester. But if party leaders decide to spend more on defense, it will mean cutting more elsewhere, setting off a fierce intraparty debate over which programs are gouged and which are spared.
As leadership looks to thread that needle, they have little margin for error: Democrats will not vote for a Republican budget, so it would take only 30 or so GOP defectors to kill any bill on the House floor—taking down a year's worth of planned policy priorities in the process.
For leadership, the silver lining in the process is that members find the sequestration-mandated topline spending cap of $1.017 trillion for fiscal year 2016 so objectionably low that both parties have some incentive to cut a short-term deal to put off sequestration, much like 2013's Ryan-Murray deal. But it is too early to tell whether the political will exists to go there.
(Read more: Joint Chiefs Warn Against Sequestration, Again)
Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price and Majority Whip Steve Scalise hosted small groups of members throughout the week in Scalise's office, and will continue to do so next week. An aide familiar with the sessions noted that the talk is very basic budgetary know-how, especially because less than one-third of the GOP Conference was in office in 2005, the last time a Republican-controlled Congress passed a budget.
Behind closed doors at Budget-Committee-members-only meetings, however, the talk is more detailed. At a Tuesday morning meeting, for instance, the group focused solely on defense and international budgetary items.
Rep. Tom Cole, a member of the Budget and Appropriations committees, said the discussion has centered on whether the House can present a budget that provides more for defense than the roughly $499 billion mandated by sequestration for fiscal year 2016.
Already, members are pressuring leadership to boost defense, and they are getting similar requests from the White House and the Pentagon. The administration budget, for instance, provided close to $534 billion for defense spending, paying for the increase with tax revenue. But since Republicans have long since sworn off any tax increases, a defense bump could only be achieved by cutting elsewhere in the budget, in order to stay under the law's topline cap.
"The real debate is, do you rob Peter to pay Paul? That is, do you take away from the nondefense categories to plus up the other?" Cole said. "I don't think any decision has been made on that, but that strategy doesn't work very well. We've seen it fail before."
Hard-line conservative voices in the conference, however, do not see it that way. Rep. Jim Jordan, an influential conservative leader in the conference, said he would rather see defense boosted at the expense of discretionary spending, which covers every line item in the budget from education to housing to veterans programs. Rep. Scott Garrett is representing their viewpoint on the committee, Jordan added.
"Sequester has saved us a few dollars," he said. "I am open to increasing defense as long as we stay within the overall cap, which would mean reductions elsewhere. It's going to be a tough thing for the president and Democrats to take, I understand that. So we're just starting the discussion."
But it is not just Democrats who would object to that kind of budgeting. Cole and his fellow appropriators said it would be nearly impossible to pass most of the spending bills they are hoping to churn out this year if the budgets are cut too low. That was proven already in 2013, when the transportation spending bill was abruptly pulled from floor consideration because the amount it spent was too low for most members.
"You might as well commit yourself to a [continuing resolution] for the rest of your life," said Rep. Mike Simpson, member of the Labor and Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, on routinely one of the most difficult spending bills to pass. "If they leave sequestration on the rest of the budget, you won't pass any of the appropriations bills; that's just the reality. You'll get 100 votes for them."
If Republicans cannot pass a budget, it would jeopardize a year's worth of stated policy priorities, notably the reconciliation process they hope to use to skirt a Senate filibuster and potentially pass a rewrite of the nation's tax code or changes to President Obama's health care law. Absent a House and Senate budget and a conference committee, the arcane procedure cannot be implemented.
That seeming stalemate has some in the budget process already thinking of a larger-scale deal as the endgame. Cole said he thinks it would be possible to craft a deal like the one struck in 2013 in negotiations between then-House and Senate Budget Committee chairs Paul Ryan and Patty Murray. But as an opening salvo, he said he is advocating for the House to stick with the budget caps mandated by sequestration.
"It seems to me we should just get our budget through, let the appropriations committee start their work on their bills, start moving their bills, and then see if there's the possibility for a larger deal later down the line," he said. "That doesn't mean we'll get there, but there's room for negotiation, and if not, the default position is the law. If the president thinks he's going to use defense as a domestic weapon to force Republicans to increase spending, it's just not going to happen."
Whether Republican leaders can hold off their own hawks is also an open question. Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry said he has been preaching to leaders and rank and file alike that the $499 billion defense spending tag is unworkable.
"What I can do is talk about the importance of national security, what it would mean if we have those lower levels, and try to encourage us to do better," he said. "We're working on some ways to illustrate that for folks."