The prospects of a congressional budget resolution are nearing zero. For weeks members in the House and Senate searched for a path forward. As of today, each institution is trail-blazing paths toward a budget but neither appears to meet up with the other. At this point in time, the budget process appears dead in the water.
As early as January House conservatives indicated they would not vote for a budget resolution that met the numbers outlined in the 2-year deal struck by President Obama, Speaker Boehner, and Majority Leader McConnell in October of last year (PL 114-74). Basically, any budget that meets the topline $1.07 trillion will be opposed by House conservatives without a guarantee to find $30 billion in savings in other parts of the budget, namely mandatory programs. The House Budget Committee cleared a budget resolution on Wednesday but only on the condition that the Speaker either agrees to procedural changes or commits to a procedural maneuver that would force the Senate to address a separate bill with $30 billion in savings before they vote on appropriations bills or a budget. It’s possible procedural changes assuage their demands. However, sending a CR or omnibus to the Senate with a side-car is potentially devastating and will likely be opposed by House and Senate leadership at all costs.
The Senate is in an entirely different situation. In a little reported provision included in last year’s budget deal allows the Senate Budget Committee Chairman, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), to “file” appropriations numbers. In other words, the Chairman can walk on the Senate floor between April 15 and May 15 and simply insert the 2-year discretionary spending number ($1.07 trillion) in the Congressional Record. This circumvents the budget process entirely. No hearings, markups, amendments, or floor debate or votes are necessary. Essentially, the House and Senate authorized the Chairman to circumvent the FY17 budget process last November.
The key lesson here should be obvious. This 2-year deal was for the Senate. The budget deal was widely considered the Obama-Boehner agreement. However, it was not the President or the House that really needed this agreement. With seven vulnerable Republican seats in states Obama carried in 2012 (nine if you count states Obama carried in 2008), Republican senators need every opportunity to avoid politically damaging and risky votes. The budget process is one of the few bills where tough amendment votes were inevitable. Avoiding these votes will give some political cover to those vulnerable members while also reducing – somewhat – the risk of a shutdown.
The remaining question is whether House leaders can find a way forward on an omnibus spending bill or a CR. A shutdown a month prior to the November election would be catastrophic for the majority. Should that happen, Republicans would lose the Senate and the House would be up for grabs, something no one has, or should have, envisioned when the deal was struck.
In this decade a failed budget process is more the norm than exception. What is exceptional is the inability to write budget and spending bills with numbers already in place. This September Speaker Ryan may find himself between conservatives who continue to vote against large spending bills and Democratic colleagues who have heavy political incentives to watch his majority fail dramatically just a month before the November election. Finding 218 votes to prevent a shutdown is far from impossible but will require some acrobatics. The Speaker may need to limber up if he wants to hold onto his majority.