DEFENSE SPENDING. The biggest problem facing Republicans is the divide between fiscal conservatives and defense hawks.
This is a particularly difficult issue in the Senate, where hawkish Republicans—including Sens. Tom Cotton, Lindsey Graham, and John McCain—have already said that they cannot support a 2016 budget that leaves in place the Budget Control Act caps on defense spending. If any other member were to join them—including fellow hawks such as Sens. Kelly Ayotte, Mark Kirk, and Roger Wicker—there goes the budget. Game over.
Members of the House Armed Services Committee and appropriators in the lower chamber also have threatened to jump ship over the defense caps, making it even more difficult for Boehner to strike a balance with his own members. House leaders have been trying for weeks to solve this puzzle.
But if budget-writers concede to hawks' demands and raise the caps on defense spending, they're likely to run into an all-out revolt from conservative members. When Congress altered the spending caps in the Ryan-Murray budget deal last year, 62 House Republicans voted against the bill. Boehner can only afford to lose 27.
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Conservative groups such as Americans for Tax Reform, Americans for Prosperity, and Taxpayers for Common Sense have pushed hard to maintain the caps, arguing that defense spending in 2016 under sequestration will actually be about $2.2 billion higher than it was in 2015. "Fiscal discipline is needed across the federal government, and that includes defense spending," several groups wrote in a letter to House Budget Chairman Tom Price earlier this year.
Both the House and Senate budgets are expected to maintain the overall sequestration caps. Senate Budget Chairman Michael Enzi has said the Budget Control Act is the law of the land and the budget should reflect that.
But that hasn't satisfied hawks in either chamber. In a concession to defense-minded members, Price has raised the possibility of raising the defense caps and lowering those for nondefense spending to maintain the overall funding levels. And in the Senate, Graham and McCain are working with Democrats on an alternative that would set up a reserve fund in the budget resolution to increase funding for defense.
Still, the budget resolution can only suggest changes to sequestration. If members want to alter the actual spending caps, they'll have to pass a law to do so, and that will require 60 votes in the Senate.
2016. The 2016 campaign provides Senate Republicans with further divergence in their ranks—and more possible headaches. Twenty-four Republicans are up for reelection, with about eight vulnerable members in blue and purple states. Those members, including Ayotte and Kirk as well as Sens. Ron Johnson and Patrick Toomey, will be wildcards in the budget process, potentially unwilling to go too far to the right.