Defense Trumps Domestic Programs as House Passes GOP Budget
After months of chaos, the GOP got the ball rolling on a budget that still faces an uncertain future in the Senate.
House leaders got to enjoy the long-sought spoils of legislative victory Wednesday when they passed a budget proposal 228-199.
Fiscal conservatives and defense hawks united to pass an outline with increased defense spending, giving House Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and Republican Whip Steve Scalise the ability to get out from under the narrative that has plagued them since the opening of the 114th Congress: that they cannot control a rambunctious bunch of representatives.
"The toughest thing is you're dealing with a lot of different issues," Scalise said after a vote on a successful budget amendment. "We worked hard for weeks to bring fiscal and defense hawks together and a lot of people thought it couldn't get done."
"It was a very unifying experience," he said.
The House's budget makes cuts to domestic spending on everything from food stamps to welfare. The blueprint also repeals the Affordable Care Act and makes changes to the tax code.
Republicans in the House chose to pass a budget that increased military spending even though that spending would not be offset, a major concession for some fiscal conservatives.
"What you see here is the leadership learning how to listen to the members and structuring a it in a way so that members views are heard and we move forward on a common goal," said Greg Walden of Oregon before the final vote.
Whether House leaders can translate their success to future legislative showdowns, however, is still very much up in the air.
Those in the leadership team believe a budget resolution will mark a shift for a Republican conference that has slid from one political crisis to another over the last three months. With a budget passed, Republicans believe they could finally be getting on the same page.
"The budget is an important foundational document for our vision and a whole host of issues that we want to address in the upcoming Congress," said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who is on the leadership team. "I am hopeful that we can unify and get around a set of priorities to get some things done."
It's a hurdle leaders have failed to overcome before. Since the beginning of the year, there has been a speaker's election that—at the very least—signified anger towards Boehner from his right flank. There was a dramatic scrapping of an abortion bill just a day before the Right to Life March in D.C., after women in the conference united against controversial language within it. And leaders barely avoided a shutdown of the Homeland Security Department last month because so many in the GOP conference were determined to block Obama's executive action on immigration as part of any funding deal. In order to pass the bill, Boehner had to turn to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for help.
But while Boehner couldn't appeal to his members to grin and bear tough votes over spending in the past, there was a recognition on Capitol Hill that a budget resolution had to be different.
"This is going to be a great starting point for us. We have had some unfortunate situations that we have had to deal with and this is a way for us to get back on solid ground and move forward," said Rep. Renee Ellmers, who was at odds with leadership on the abortion legislation.
After months of embarrassing headlines, passing a budget makes good on a promise the party made to voters on the campaign trail.
For some, the reason they were willing to go along with Boehner on Wednesday was a simple shift in the speaker's leadership style. Instead of simply forcing his conference to unite behind one idea, Boehner gave his members several options. Nicknamed the "queen of the hill" approach, several budgets—including one passed out of the budget committee called Price One, another with additional military spending called Price Two and a third put forward by the Republican Study Committee—got their vote on the floor. Because Price Two got them majority of votes, it was the one to move forward. Members say the move allowed everyone to be on record supporting something he or she likes.
"They offered some options and it looks like something is going to come out of there that is a budget we can support," Rep. Steve King said. "There will be budgets out there on the floor that every one of us can support a budget."
The other reason Republicans were more willing to cooperate than they have been in the past is that there is an overwhelming sense that defense spending is still a holy grail for the party. Even as the party's libertarian wing beats its drum, defense spending is still an overwhelming priority for much of the caucus.
Excess spending on domestic programs remains something conservatives are steadfastly opposed to, but upping the ante on national defense at a time when the U.S. faces new threats from terrorism abroad seems easier for many Republicans to swallow.
"Our number one job is national security," Ellmers said. "We live in a very dangerous world and this is not a time for us to look at this as a fiscal issue. This is a time to look at this as strength for the American people."
But whether the strategy can be copied and used again to placate all sides of the GOP's conference on more contentious issues in the future, like tax reform or a debt ceiling vote, is still uncertain.
"Every vote is different," said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a moderate who has often been on the side of leadership.
Added Rep. Virginia Fox: "I don't know what it portends for the future in terms of other votes, but I know it is something essential that we have to get done and it will allow us to do a lot of other positive things and I hope that is recognized by everyone in the conference."
Democrats, however, are confident that a singular "Kumbaya" moment won't be enough to help Republican leaders erase the last several months. Republicans, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer says, are just playing nice temporarily so they "do not totally implode."
"At some point in time, they are going to have to come to grips with reality," Hoyer said.
Even though Republicans in the House can unite around a budget like Price Two, there are still more obstacles to overcome in the Senate. It's not just the House that has to prove it can function. In the Senate, disagreements over defense spending have overshadowed budget discussions. It's going to be up to senators there to determine House leadership's future. Even though Boehner got a victory on his court, if Senate Republicans drop the ball on theirs, it could discentevize conservatives in the House to go along with leadership's strategies in the future.
Senate Republicans, however, say that any fruitful House actions make their job easier.
"I am real proud of them over in the House for doing what they are doing," Sen. Orrin Hatch said. "This is kind of remarkable."
Rachel Roubein contributed to this article.