President Trump will send his budget to Capitol Hill Thursday, setting off a brawl with Democrats as well as fellow Republicans who are alarmed over a range of proposed deep cuts to federal programs.
Trump’s ambitious fiscal blueprint will break the De facto truce that Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) negotiated in 2013 — and leaders renewed with the 2015 Bipartisan Budget Act — that ended years of bitter fighting over defense and discretionary spending.
But it’s Congress, not the White House, that has the power of the purse, and many on Capitol Hill believe Trump’s budget plan isn’t politically feasible.
Trump’s budget will also spark a heated debate over the president’s proposal to build a multi-billion-dollar wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Even though Trump promised to force Mexico to pay for the wall, there’s little confidence in Congress he can make that happen, raising thorny questions over whether it should be paid for with even more domestic spending cuts.
Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) would likely love to get into a shutdown standoff over Trump’s border wall — an issue that revs up the liberal base — but GOP leaders want to avoid that fight.
Ryan told lawmakers at the annual GOP retreat in January that the money for the wall will come in a supplemental spending bill later in the year and announced publicly that he plans to offset its cost.
Usually, spending fights are delayed until the late fall, but this year there will likely be a showdown next month, as government funding is due to run out on April 28.
If Republicans try to jam through the defense spending increases or the social program cuts expected in Trump’s budget — or try to add money for construction of the border wall or for stepped-up enforcement of immigration law — they could risk a government shutdown.
“We believe it would be inappropriate to insist on the inclusion of such funding in a must-pass appropriations bill that is needed for the Republican majority in control of the Congress to avert a government shutdown so early in President Trump’s administration,” Senate Democratic leaders warned Monday in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), referring to money for the border wall.
Democrats warned Monday that Trump’s budget risks a return to the consuming spending fights that paralyzed President Obama’s agenda after the 2010 Tea Party revolution.
“What is being reported about the Trump budget would be a massive break from that bipartisan approach to avoiding shutdowns and setting budgets,” said a Senate Democratic aide, referring to the Ryan-Murray compromise.
Republicans claim Democrats are being hypocritical, noting that senior Democrats including then-Sen. Obama (D-Ill.), then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Schumer voted for a border security law in 2006. The Secure Fence Act was signed into law by then-President George W. Bush.
A battle over spending will give GOP leaders one more headache to worry about and could distract from the effort to repeal and replace ObamaCare or overhaul the tax code.
The Republican chairmen of the Senate and House Appropriations committees are taking a cautious approach, pledging only to review the administration’s spending proposals carefully. But rank-and-file members are rebelling already.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Appropriations energy and water development subcommittee, says the administration shouldn’t try to balance the budget with steep cuts to domestic programs that have already undergone substantial belt-tightening in recent years.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the Armed Services Committee and a strong proponent of military spending, says Trump’s budget is “dead on arrival” and “would be a disaster” if implemented.
He’s worried about the administration’s proposed 37 percent cut to the State Department, which he says would put U.S. diplomats serving abroad at risk.
The Environmental Protection Agency, the Energy Department, the Commerce Department and the Department of Housing and Urban Development are also facing steep cuts.
Foreign Policy reported Monday that the administration wants to cut funding for United Nations programs by 50 percent to 60 percent.
The Washington Post reported a possible 1.8 percent reduction of the federal workforce in the Washington area.
A Republican member of the Senate Appropriations Committee said there is virtually no chance of convincing eight Senate Democrats to support Trump’s proposed increase in defense spending unless it’s matched with a similar increase to domestic spending.
“I don’t see how we’re going to get eight Democrats to vote for increasing defense by $54 billion and cutting domestic programs,” said the lawmaker, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about Trump’s budget. “Democrats aren’t going to vote for $604 billion for defense if it’s not matched. Democrats would vote for $704 billion for defense if it was matched.”
Mick Mulvaney, the head of the White House budget office, told reporters last month that the president’s budget would call for just over $600 billion in defense spending. That would be a $54 billion increase compared to the defense spending cap for 2018 set by the 2011 Budget Control Act. Experts say the real increase is closer to $20 billion.
Jim Dyer, who served for 13 years as the Republican staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, says it will be tough to find tens of billions of dollars for the defense increase from other programs.
“If Mr. Mulvaney tries to get $54 billion out of non-defense cuts, he will have to tread softly,” Dyer said of popular programs on the non-defense side of the budget. “There are veterans’ benefits — you don’t want to touch that. There’s funding for the wall and homeland security. There’s money for cancer research that everyone supports.”
He predicted that Congress will largely ignore Trump’s budget and do what it wants.
“This year I think we’ll fall back on that old adage: The executive proposes and the Congress disposes,” he said.
The Senate rejected President Obama’s budget in 2015 in a vote of 98-1. Earlier Obama budgets lost by votes of 99-0 and 97-0, though Democrats largely voted no because they say Republicans were playing politics in setting the budget votes.
Some Republicans on Capitol Hill say the budget battles of the Obama years have already cut all the fat from ≠non-defense programs.
“We have the discretionary appropriations money under control. It’s not the driver of costs,” said a senior Senate GOP aide. “The big drivers of costs are the entitlements, Medicare and Medicaid. The solution is to fix that. We shouldn’t pretend we can cut discretionary programs to get to solvency when we need 218 votes in the House and 60 votes in the Senate.”
Democratic leaders sent a clear message to their GOP counterparts Monday not to expect any bipartisan help in passing spending bills that favor defense over domestic programs. They wrote to McConnell that Democrats are committed to ensuring that any extra funding “be divided equally between defense and non-defense priorities.”
They also pledged to “strongly oppose the inclusion of [poison pill] riders in any of the must-pass appropriations bills that fund the government.”