Republicans in the House of Representatives approved a 2018 budget that allows Congress to add $1.5 trillion to the deficit.
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WASHINGTON — Many of the same conservatives who recently voted against disaster aid because it would boost the deficit voted Thursday to pass a budget that allows for tax reform legislation to add up to $1.5 trillion to the national debt.
So why was this bill different? Quite simply, Republicans say, they need a win.
There are Republican majorities in the House and Senate, along with a GOP president. But it’s been 10 months without any major legislative accomplishment for the Republican Party, and now conservatives find themselves in a tough spot on tax reform.
President Trump is loudly promising sweeping tax cuts, and the party is united in favor of that goal. But if those cuts are not offset, the bill will balloon the federal debt. With Democrats united against the Republican tax plan, GOP leaders can’t afford to alienate moderates in their party by mandating dramatic cuts in domestic spending. Instead, the GOP sales pitch has been that the tax cuts will pay for themselves over time by driving a dramatic increase in economic growth.
“If we had a whole bunch of wins on major items up to this point, would we perhaps be a little bit more deliberate in our negotiations? I think the answer is yes,” Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who chairs the hardline House Freedom Caucus, told USA TODAY. “The fact that we need to put up some major legislative victories … certainly factors into how flexible, I think, a number of us are going to be.”
Meadows said he had “a few red lines,” which include getting the corporate tax rate to 20% and the small-business rate to 25%, but otherwise he didn’t anticipate fighting too hard on other aspects of the bill.
Passing Thursday’s bill is the first major step on the road to tax reform. It includes “reconciliation” language that would allow the Senate to pass tax reform legislation with a simple majority rather than the usual 60 votes requires to avoid a filibuster. Republicans have a narrow 52-48 majority in the Senate.
The bill the House passed Thursday was already adopted by the Senate and differed drastically from the bill the House had passed Oct. 5. The original House bill required that any tax cuts must be offset by closing loopholes or cutting spending.
Arizona Rep. Trent Franks, another House Freedom Caucus member, told USA TODAY on Tuesday that he would vote for the Senate’s budget bill even though it was deeply flawed. “The budget is so far from perfect that it’s almost inexpressible, but the importance of tax reform to this country is so overwhelming that we have to get there.”
“Somehow, apparently, you can’t do tax reform and save money at the same time,” Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry, another Freedom Caucus member, told USA TODAY. “If we’ve gotta make a choice and either have none or at least have the one, then you’ve gotta make a choice and at least have the one,” he continued.
Jason Pye, vice president of legislative affairs for the conservative advocacy organization FreedomWorks, applauded the passage of the resolution despite being “frustrated with the spending levels” it set.
Pye said that it was critical to get tax reform done this year and that voting for the Senate budget helped Republicans gain some time to focus on the actual tax reform text.
If the House had not passed the Senate budget, the two chambers would have had to meet to reconcile their differences. That process could take weeks — time that the GOP doesn’t have. Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has said he hopes to get the House tax plan passed by Thanksgiving so the Senate can pass the bill by the end of the year.
Democrats said that Republicans elected to Congress on a platform of ending wasteful government spending were being hypocrites in the budget vote.
Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the Senate floor that “the most scolding deficit hawks have morphed into deficit doves, eschewing principle for political expediency.”
Stan Collender, a budget expert and author of The Guide To The Federal Budget, wrote in Forbes, “The House Freedom Caucus — that self-professed paragon of fiscal rectitude and righteousness that in the past has opposed emergency relief aid for Americans devastated by natural disasters unless it was offset with spending cuts — today made it much easier for the multi-trillion dollar increase in the federal deficit and national debt … to be enacted.”
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Not all conservatives were willing to suck it up for the sake of being able to say they passed something, though.
Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, a member of the conservative Republican Study Committee, was one of just a handful of deficit hawks who voted against the budget Thursday.
“I reject the premise that the only way to pass tax reform is to wildly spend,” he told reporters Tuesday.
Over the past few years, the House Freedom Caucus has enjoyed an oversized role within the party because they often vote as a bloc. The roughly three dozen members are enough to stop Republican-only legislation if they stick together. Their tactics were one main reason that former House speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, resigned from Congress in 2015 out of frustration.
The group was able to force changes to a bill that would repeal and replace Obamacare this spring after initially announcing they were against it. The House passed the version that Meadows had played a significant role negotiating, but the Senate was not able to pass that bill or any other repeal legislation — even though they held three different votes.
Meadows seems to understand that going along with House GOP leadership’s requests eliminates some of the clout the group had previously enjoyed — at least temporarily.
“The more you say ‘yes,’ the fewer reporters show up,” Meadows joked in early October, the day after just one reporter sat outside of the group’s Monday night meeting.
The group’s weekly meetings generally draw a crowd of press who are waiting to hear where members come down on specific issues. At the peak of the health care debate, dozens of reporters stood in the hallway outside the gatherings.
It isn’t just that conservatives are being forced to compromise. On some pieces of legislation, they’re being discounted from the process entirely.
Multiple hurricanes and wildfires mean Congress has approved emergency funding to help offset disaster costs, despite pushback from conservative lawmakers. Without the support of most conservative members, GOP leadership has had to rely on Democrats and moderates to push the funding bills across the finish line.
While many Freedom Caucus members have a good relationship with the president, Trump has not hesitated to ditch his party to make a deal. He worked with Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to secure a deal in September, over conservative objections, on a bill that would provide disaster relief funding, an extension of the debt limit, and short-term funding to keep the government open.