House Republicans writing the party's annual budget proposal this year found themselves with an impossible circle to square. Conservative spending hawks insisted that the GOP stick to the budget ceiling Congress imposed four years ago, while the party's other hawks—those who prioritize a robust national defense above all else—demanded that the plan pour more money into the Pentagon as it fights a new war against ISIS.
"This is a war within the Republican Party," the always-understated Senator Lindsey Graham told The New York Times. "You can shade it any way you want, but this is war."
Seeking an armistice in this war over war spending, the new House GOP budget chief, Representative Tom Price of Georgia, turned to an old accounting gimmick that both Republicans and Democrats have decried in previous years. He allocated an additional $94 billion (18 percent more than the base defense spending of $523 billion) to a separate budget known as the "overseas contingency fund" that was first used to finance the war on terrorism after September 11. The off-the-books emergency war fund allows Republicans to boost total defense spending over the budget proposed by President Obama, who simply ignored the legal caps currently in place. As Politico's David Rogers writes, the GOP budget is "a sweeping end-run around" the ceiling that Congress itself established in 2011 as part of a deal to avoid a default on the nation's debt.
The annual budget is not a law that gets signed or vetoed by the president, but it sets the parameters for the more important congressional appropriations process later in the year, when real money gets doled out. This year's proposal takes on added significance, however, because Republicans now control both chambers of Congress and desperately want to agree on a budget as a way of demonstrating their capacity to govern and to increase the GOP's leverage with the Obama administration over spending decisions. Aside from its gimmickry on defense, the Price budget closely resembles the proposals made in recent years by his better-known predecessor, Paul Ryan (who has moved on to lead the Ways and Means Committee). It purports to cut $5.5 trillion in spending to balance the budget within a decade; it partially privatizes Medicare, block grants Medicaid to the states; calls for repealing Obamacare and rewriting the tax code; and it steeply reduces the size of domestic programs across the government.
Yet if it were not for the House's desire to reach agreement with the Senate, the Price budget might have cut even more deeply into domestic programs to pay for higher Pentagon spending. The Senate Republican conference is plainly less conservative than the House GOP, and because so many of its members are up for re-election next year, it is more sensitive to the political repercussions of the budget. The proposal drafted by Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi of Wyoming, to be unveiled Wednesday, is not expected to cut as deeply or overhaul entitlement programs so dramatically as the House version.
Can the two chambers agree? The fact that a budget can pass the Senate by a simple majority, without support from Democrats, will help. But if the bickering between House and Senate Republicans over homeland security funding earlier this year is any indication, the negotiation won't be easy. Many Republicans in the Senate have never been big fans of the conservative House budgets, so Tea Party hardliners in the lower chamber likely will have to compromise—something they are often loath to do—in any deal. The stakes aren't as high as they were in the DHS battle, but it remains an important test for a party that has found its new congressional power difficult to harness. And resolving the GOP's so-called "war" over defense spending will be key to that effort.