Congressional Republicans on Monday panned President Donald Trump’s call to finance a military build-up by slashing domestic agencies and ignoring entitlement programs — undermining the president’s budget even before it’s been finalized.
The consternation spanned the party’s ranks just one day before Trump addresses Congress for his first time Tuesday evening: House GOP fiscal-hawks said it was ludicrous to think they’d pass a budget that did not address ballooning costs in Medicare and Social Security, the main drivers of the national debt. Pragmatic-minded GOP appropriators scratched their heads over where Trump would siphon off $54 billion in domestic cuts. And GOP defense hawks said the Pentagon budget boost doesn’t go nearly far enough.
Republican sources in leadership and on the budget and appropriations committees, meanwhile, quietly assured reporters that this was just an opening bid, and that Congress, ultimately, has the power of the purse.
Make no mistake, they say: they’ll be writing their own budget plans.
“The president will propose and the Congress will dispose,” said House Appropriator Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) “We’ll look at his budget but at the end of the day we in Congress write the appropriations bills, and I am not one who thinks you can pay for an increase in [military] spending on the backs of domestic discretionary programs, which constitute 13 or 14 percent of all federal spending.”
Senior GOP aides echoed that sentiment. One noted, for instance that “few if any Democrats voted for President [Barack] Obama’s budget the first time around.” “It’s a blueprint,” the person said. Another added, “it’s the White House budget request — and ‘request’ is the key word here.”
While most Republicans declined to be quoted on record criticizing Trump’s budget before it’s been released, their initial reaction is a warning sign for the White House: If Trump wants to fortify the military, he has to give the Hill something they can work with.
It’s not that Republicans don’t want to boost the Pentagon, but if they’re going to pay for it, they’d rather not do it all on the backs of domestic agencies that have already seen their budgets gutted in recent years. They also are itching to do entitlement reform — a key pillar of the traditional GOP platform.
“There have been many attempts made to try to balance the books of the U.S. government on the backs of the discretionary dollar, and we all know that’s a fantasy because the drivers of the debt are on the mandatory side: Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security,” said Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), who also sits on both the budget and appropriations committees. “Trying to solve for a deficit in the hundreds of billions of dollars cannot be accomplished through deeper cuts to discretionary programs without terrific harm to both the economy and a lot of innocent people.”
That’s to say nothing of the practical problem Trump’s plan would face in the Senate, where at least eight Democrats will be needed to overcome a filibuster and pass any spending bill. Senior Democrats on both sides of the Capitol greeted Trump’s initial budget plan with furious opposition, and one Senate Democratic aide said “it’s pretty hard to imagine” a single member of their party backing the proposal.
“Democrats will not help pass laws that shift more economic burdens onto hardworking American families,” said House Appropriations Ranking Democrat Nita Lowey in a statement. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer equated the plan to “taking a meat ax to programs that benefit the middle-class.”
The White House on Monday unveiled the proposed spike in military spending and vowed to offset it dollar-for-dollar with cuts to domestic programs that have nothing to do with defense. Those agencies and departments, including State and the EPA, could face severe cutbacks on average of more than 10 percent if veterans’ benefits remain unchanged.
The White House sources said the domestic offsets were necessary because Trump does not intend to go after entitlements to pay for spending increases, a promise he made on the campaign trail. And therein lies the first problem: The Republican budget playbook in recent years has always relied on entitlement reforms to achieve their fiscal gold standard: balancing the budget within 10 years.
House Republicans are already prodding their leaders to maintain that pledge in their coming budget — even if Trump doesn’t in his.
“We can’t abandon long-term reforms and entitlement and maintain any kind of credibility at all,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said in an interview last week. “We’ve always had reforms in there, we need to keep reforms there.”
Republicans will also find themselves under heavy pressure from outside conservative groups to rein in entitlements, which comprise at least three-fourths of annual federal spending. In an interview last week, Freedom Works policy director Jason Pye noted that Republicans could “cut every single bit of nondefense discretionary spending, and you’re still going to run a budget deficit.” The entire budgets of the State Department and EPA, for instance, add up to less than the proposed $54 billion increase in defense-related spending.
“You’re effectively only taking 12.5 percent of federal spending. I don’t think that’s tenable. You actually have to do more,” Pye said.
Hill Democrats spent all of Monday accusing the president of putting the burden on everyday Americans. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) argued that foreign aid — which is on Trump’s chopping block — isn’t “charity” but “directly advances U.S. national interests by fostering a safer and more stable world.” Schumer said Americans under Trump’s domestic cuts would be breathing “dirtier air and drinking dirtier water.” And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (R-Calif.) said the cuts could mean “1,000 grants to medical researchers” are cut and “100,000 low-income kids would be cut out of” federal education programs.
Meanwhile, defense hawks like John McCain said there wasn’t enough spent on Defense. Other defense-minded Republicans quietly fretted that cuts to State, the key department heading up the nation’s diplomacy, would mean less security for the country, not more.
Not everyone dreads the idea of offsetting a military boost with cuts to domestic spending. One Freedom Caucus source believed its group members could be receptive to such reductions; they feel the government is too bloated anyway. Other budget hawks like Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) said there “certainly” is enough waste on the domestic side that it could offset the defense boost.
Like Democrats, Republicans on the appropriations panel — and most if not all moderate Republicans — also worry about what such those cuts would mean for their constituents. Appropriations Committee spokeswoman Jennifer Hing said Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) “strongly agrees that more investment in our national defense is needed, and that all federal programs should be reviewed as to their worth and value.”
She notably added this little caveat, however, echoing the theme of the day on the Hill: “As always, the power of the purse lies with Congress, and any budget decisions will go through the regular budget and appropriations process.”
Jennifer Scholtes and Burgess Everett contributed to this story.