The House Republican budget stalled in committee Wednesday night amid a war between GOP leaders and their Budget Committee chairman over funding for the global war on terror, as each tried to appease a contingent of the GOP conference crucial to passing their yearly spending blueprint.
Unable to overcome stark internal differences, the budget panel recessed around 10 p.m. without having finished marking up the measure. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy arrived to twist arms, but the effort was unsuccessful and the committee threw in the towel at midnight—with hopes of trying again Thursday.
Whatever the final outcome, the budget delay marks yet another stumble by a Republican majority that has repeatedly found itself unable to move controversial legislation easily through its ranks in the 114th Congress.
House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price, according to GOP leadership aides, had resisted pressure from leaders to up his budget's defense coffers without offsetting the spending—so much so that he told them earlier in the week that an amendment doing so would not pass in the committee.
Skeptical of his claims, Majority Whip Steve Scalise and Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry went over his head and checked with committee members on their own. They found that, according to their tally, an amendment would be able to pass, the aides said. So around 7 p.m., the committee released an amendment from Rep. Todd Rokita that appeared to be crafted to appease defense hawks' concerns.
But Scalise and McHenry seem to have miscounted—leading to the recess, an intense closed-door meeting, and, ultimately, calling it a night without a vote on Rokita's amendment.
Leaders believe the amendment is crucial to pass the budget on the House floor, avoiding another embarrassing failure for House Republicans, this time over a political document that does not have the force of law and is generally viewed as a nonbinding statement of priorities. Defense hawks have told leaders they would refuse to vote for the budget on the House floor unless the amendment is added.
But members of the hard-line conservative wing of the Republican Party are resistant because the amendment would add to the deficit. All told, it is not clear whether Republicans have the votes for a budget without the amendment. But it is equally unclear whether the amendment would drive away fiscal conservatives, making the budget equally unpassable.
The standoff is exposing long-simmering tensions between defense hawks and fiscal conservatives. Making the issue harder to solve, the battle lines are not so clearly drawn.
"The problem is that just about every defense hawk has a little bit of deficit hawk in them, and just about every deficit hawk has a little bit of defense hawk in them. So you're seeing a very strange combination," Rep. Mick Mulvaney said.
The standoff is over roughly $20 billion in military spending. Defense hawks, including GOP members of the House Armed Services Committee, believe Price's blueprint does not provide enough for the Pentagon, because it adheres to a $523 billion defense cap set under the Budget Control Act of 2011, otherwise known as sequestration. What's more, the budget provides less for defense than President Obama's $561 billion budget, a position some Republicans believe is politically untenable when they are meant to be the party of defense.
Those hawks met with Speaker John Boehner on Tuesday, pressing for extra money in the baseline budget for defense, but leaders see that as an impossibility without changing the sequestration law. Instead, when Price released his budget, he agreed to a boost to Overseas Contingency Operations, or off-budget funding for antiterrorism operations. Price's budget allows for $94 billion in OCO money, which is more than the president's request for $51 billion to combat terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other areas.
Because it is off-budget, the money would not affect whether Price's budget balances, but the budget mandates that $20 billion of that funding be offset with spending cuts elsewhere so as not to add to the deficit. The hawks are skeptical that those offsets will ever be found and are refusing to go along with the plan unless the extra funding is guaranteed without offsets.
That's why Price is being resistant, the aides said: He does not want to add to the deficit, and it is not clear that any budget doing so would be able to pass on the House floor. But Rokita's amendment would boost the OCO coffers to $96 billion without requiring offsets for any of it.
Yet even the hawks' plan may not be enough for other hawks. Rep. Tom Rooney, an Army veteran, said he will not vote for the budget unless it calls for higher military spending in its baseline, rather than just extra OCO funding.
"That does not help with planning to keep the country safe, in my opinion. People still can't train. You still can't plan on future years," Rooney said. "I'm just not going to be a part of weakening the country."
Adding money to the baseline defense budget, however, would trigger automatic spending cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act to nondefense discretionary coffers. That would make it nearly impossible for the House Appropriations Committee to pass bills funding all other areas of the government.
"I'm sympathetic to that argument," said Appropriations Committee member Ken Calvert, of the members calling for more defense spending. But, he added, "then we couldn't pass the rest of the appropriations bills."
Daniel Newhauser is a staff correspondent for National Journal, where he primarily covers the House of Representatives. He was formerly a House leadership reporter for Roll Call, where he started as an intern in 2010 and quickly earned a slot as a beat reporter.
A native of San Antonio, Texas, Newhauser traveled further West to study journalism at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and write for newspapers including the East Valley Tribune and the Green Valley News & Sun.