- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 9, 2015

Congressional Republicans are likely to miss an April 15 deadline the law sets for passing a unified budget, with lawmakers set to return from a two-week break on April 13, with plenty of differences still to hash out between the House and Senate over everything from the size of spending cuts to revamping Medicare.

A unified budget would be Congress’ first since 2009 — a plan that helped ease passage of Obamacare — and Republicans hope this one will create a path to repealing that same law, as well as eliminating annual deficits within a decade.

Analysts said reaching a final deal between House and Senate Republicans, who control both chambers, should be relatively easy, both because of the number of areas where they agree, and because a final deal is necessary for Congress to have a chance to use “reconciliation,” which is the budget tool that would help repeal Obamacare while sidestepping a Democratic filibuster in the Senate.

“It will be viewed as a test of whether they can govern,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

Both chambers call for repeal of the Affordable Care Act, the official name of President Obama’s health law, though the plans keep the revenue from Obamacare tax increases. Both plans also pump $96 billion into war spending as a gimmick to boost the Pentagon budget without breaking the budget caps Congress and Mr. Obama agreed to several years ago.

The House plan, written by Budget Chairman Tom Price, Georgia Republican, calls for spending $5.5 trillion less than currently projected over the next decade, while the Senate plan, written by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, would spent $5.1 trillion less — a difference analysts said should be easily bridged when the two chambers meet in a conference committee.

“The two budget resolutions are very similar. That’s a good recipe for them to appoint conferees, sit down and hammer something out,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum.

But there is still work to be done.

Budget negotiators have to make sure deficit and defense hawks are satisfied with the starting point for appropriations bills later this year; the House plan changes Medicare into a voucherlike program.

Senate Republicans up for reelection in 2016 may not want to touch the health program for seniors, a potent voting bloc, although their plan matches President Obama’s challenge to cut $430 billion from the program.

Republicans have to march warily on entitlements if they want to take the White House and enact real reform though. Bold moves to change Medicare or replace Obamacare will open them up to attacks from their Democratic rivals in the runup to the 2016 elections, imperiling their chances of winning the very elections that allow them to carry out their agenda, according to GOP strategist Ford O’Connell.

“We have a chicken-and-egg problem,” he said.

For now, GOP budget aides are quick to highlight similarities instead of differences, saying that while work is in its early stages, they’re mindful of the mid-April deadline.

A spokesman for Mr. Price said the chairman “looks forward to working with Chairman Enzi and the Senate in the coming weeks to find agreement and take the next step toward addressing the nation’s fiscal and economic challenges.”

Democrats are also pushing for a seat at the table. A spokesman for Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent who serves as Democrats’ point man on the Senate Budget Committee, said the senator’s repeated failed efforts to amend the budget on the chamber floor last week demonstrate he is “obviously very disappointed” with the budget and will “continue to try and make changes to it.”

“Secret negotiations among just Republicans will not advance any kind of reasonable budget agreement,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee.

Congress rarely meets the April 15 deadline to finalize its budget — in years when it crafts one at all. The last time lawmakers met their target date was in 2003 — for the fiscal 2004 plan — but usually Congress misses the deadline by an average of 37 days, the Congressional Research Service reported last year.

A budget resolution does not have the force of law, and therefore does not require Mr. Obama’s signature.

The hard part will come later this year, when appropriators will have to write spending bills to match the budget, and other committees would try to carry out the instructions under “reconciliation,” including an Obamacare repeal and a tax code overhaul. Those bills are subject to a presidential veto, and the White House has already signaled it won’t accept a defense spending boost without domestic spending hikes — and potentially tax increases to pay for both.

Republicans are also awaiting an expected Supreme Court decision, due by early summer, that could blow a hole in Obamacare, opening the door to GOP-driven reforms.

The justices will decide if the administration is unlawfully paying Obamacare’s subsidies to customers in states that rely on the federal HealthCare.gov exchange.

The law says subsidies can be paid to customers in exchanges “established by the state,” which challengers in the case, known as King v. Burwell, interpret as the exchanges set up by only a handful of states.

“We’ll have the budget done before we have this court ruling, so we need to have flexible reconciliation instructions so that we can use it for our King-Burwell contingency planning,” House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, told reporters last week.

Mr. Holtz-Eakin said the ruling could determine whether the GOP-majority Congress sees enough momentum to forego achievable policy goals and pursue Obamacare’s repeal.

“It’s a lot of work for a veto they know they’re going to get,” he said.

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