It is often assumed that the endless intra-Republican process of trying to partially repeal and replace Obamacare is holding up urgent budget and tax legislation that might otherwise be making a lot of Republican members of Congress and their donors very happy. And in some respects that is correct. The fiscal 2018 budget-reconciliation bill governing taxes and spending cannot proceed until the fiscal 2017 reconciliation bill — which is technically what the health-care legislation is — has been disposed of, one way or another. It’s hard, moreover, to figure out the right baselines for either federal revenues or expenditures until the tax-and-spending cuts in the health-care legislation are either enacted or dropped.
But even if Trumpcare was safely in the rearview mirror instead of representing a rapidly approaching 18-wheeler veering across the center line, it is not clear Congress would be barreling ahead smoothly. That’s made evident by the terrible struggle of GOP leaders to reach a general agreement on the kinds of tax-and-spending levels that make up a budget resolution, a necessary first step in the process of producing a reconciliation bill.
A big part of the problem is figuring out if there will be any linkage between the budget resolution — which Republicans can pass by a simple majority — and two big items that will require Democratic votes, at least in the Senate: a debt limit increase, and the waiver of spending “caps” on defense and non-defense appropriations. If there is some kind of grand “deal” that encompasses both the budget resolution and those must-pass measures, then moving along will require working across House-Senate and partisan lines. At present, though, Republicans can’t even reach agreement in their own House caucus, as the Washington Post reports:
The House is hung up on a budget. Republicans divided among defense hawks, deficit hard-liners and moderates are struggling to reach consensus on a package setting spending levels for fiscal year 2018.
House Budget Committee chair Diane Black has been struggling for months to come up with a budget blueprint her own committee members can support. She’s regularly upset moderates and politically vulnerable members with demands for hundreds of billions of dollars (now down to a still-large $200 billion) in cuts of “mandatory programs,” including Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and farm subsidies. Defense hawks fear her zest for politically perilous spending cuts will spoil Democratic support for a lifting of the appropriations caps. The House leadership is unhappy with anything its Senate counterparts won’t like because it could lead to a lengthy process of House-Senate negotiations even as members and hungry lobbyists impatiently wait for the tax cuts that can only happen after a budget is enacted. And as always, committee chairs and appropriations committee members in both houses intensely dislike being told how to spend money.
And Black’s Senate counterpart, Mike Enzi, is basically saying he’s too busy to do his job:
I’m trying to do a 2018 budget while I’m trying to do health care. That’s enough to drive you nuts!
Aside from the spending targets a budget resolution must set out, it also requires a pretty clear understanding of the size, cost, and deficit implications of tax legislation. That’s all pretty much still up in the air:
The most basic and momentous question of all — whether tax cuts will need to be offset by “ending loopholes” or cutting spending — has not really been answered yet. That has implications for a hundred other subsequent decisions. A proudly naked tax-cut package, perhaps adorned with the emperor’s new clothes of aggressively “dynamic scoring,” might take Congress by storm. But many conservatives are hell-bent on the domestic spending cuts congressional Republicans have voted for again and again in the various Ryan budgets. It’s bad enough Republicans voted all those times to repeal Obamacare but now can’t get it together to get rid of the hated law. A budget that doesn’t include “entitlement reform” or cuts in all those wasteful poor-people programs would be, if possible, even worse.
So with or without Trumpcare, a moment of truth is fast arriving for this White House and Congress. And the possibility of ending 2017 with nothing much accomplished could become very real.