House and Senate Republicans this week unveiled their respective spending proposals for next year, the opening move in their bid to secure the first GOP budget plan in nearly a decade, and finally show Americans they are capable of governing. But before the ink was even dry, the proposals had exposed a deep and long-simmering ideological rift within the GOP, one that is pitting deficit-obsessed Tea Partiers against their defense-obsessed colleagues. “This is a war within the Republican Party,” Sen. Lindsey Graham told the New York Times. “You can shade it any way you want, but this is war.”
A rough outline of the battle: Fiscal hawks are insisting that the GOP abide by the spending caps imposed four years ago by the Budget Control Act of 2011—aka the sequester—while defense hawks are demanding that lawmakers break the caps to provide additional cash to the nation’s military to help fight ISIS. Neither group appears willing to cave on what each says is its top priority.
Faced with finding a compromise between an immovable object and an unstoppable force, House Budget Chairman Tom Price on Tuesday attempted some numerical sleight of hand. He stuck to the sequester’s $523 billion cap on defense spending for next year, but proposed funneling an extra $40 billion or so to the Pentagon via a separate emergency war fund that is not subject to the 2011 limits. The accounting gimmick threaded the needle on paper but failed to do the same on Capitol Hill. Neither side appeared particularly pleased with the proposal, particularly in the Senate.
A budget plan requires only a simple majority vote in both chambers—meaning that Senate Democrats can’t filibuster the budget nor can President Obama veto. That’s good news for Republicans, who control both of Congress for the first time since Obama took office but have been stymied by Democratic filibusters and the president’s pen at almost every turn this year. The problem, though, is that if the Tea Partiers and the defense hawks aren’t willing to compromise, the GOP doesn’t actually have the majority it needs to pass a budget. And, in this case, they won’t have anyone to blame for the failure but themselves.
Intraparty squabbles within the GOP are certainly nothing new. The last battle brought the Department of Homeland Security within hours of a partial shutdown, and a similar disagreement between GOP hard-liners and their more moderate colleagues was the driving force in the 2013 government shutdown. Still, this budget clash is different and, in many regards, more ideologically honest. In both the DHS and shutdown fights, most Republicans were actually on the same page in terms of policy—they wanted to block Obama’s immigration reforms during the former and repeal Obamacare during the latter—but instead were in disagreement over how to achieve those goals, and how much to risk in the process.
The budget debate, though, doesn’t fall along those same lines. It pits two competing Republican goals directly against each other. This isn’t about how to do something; it’s about what to do.
The question now is whether a compromise is possible. If it’s not, Republicans will deny themselves the chance to use a powerful procedural budget maneuver to try to repeal Obamacare later this year. That maneuver—known as budget reconciliation—can be used only if both chambers agree on a budget. Of course, even if the GOP succeeds in finally passing a repeal bill, it would nonetheless die a quick death upon reaching the president’s desk. Still, Republicans really want that symbolic passage.
Republicans, then, are faced with a choice: Focus on their individual deficit and defense goals, or sacrifice them so they can take aim at a larger target, one that they agree on but also know they have no chance of bringing down as long as Obama is still in office. If they do the former, one wing of the GOP will likely get what it wants and the other will be furious. Do the latter, and both wings will have something to celebrate together, but neither will achieve what they set out to do.