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.