- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2015

They’ve written their budgets, but now Republican leaders must try to round up the votes to pass them amid an ever-more polarized GOP riven with disputes over defense spending and the pace of cutting entitlements.

GOP leaders added a new wrinkle Thursday when they announced a deal with top Democrats to scrap an 18-year-old tool designed to cut Medicare spending, drawing fierce opposition from conservative groups that said permanently ending the “doc-fix” walks back on a promise from the 1994 “Republican Revolution.”

The spending fights will make it tough for House Speaker John A. Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to cobble a coalition able to pass a budget, and they are unlikely to get any help from Democrats, who have slammed the twin GOP proposals released this week — one for the House and one for the Senate — as “warmed-over stew.”

“I haven’t seen any budget they’ve put forth in a long time that does anything more than take us back to the failed economic policies under President Bush that took us to the brink of a depression, took us into a deep recession, and now they want to go back to a budget that does exactly the same thing,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.

Both the House and Senate will debate their budgets on the floor next week, and lawmakers will be soul-searching over whether they can support them.

“We’ve already had some pretty embarrassing situations, but I think not being able to pass a Republican budget on the floor would be the granddaddy of them all,” said Rep. Matt Salmon, Arizona Republican.

The big sticking point is a fight over defense spending. With Republicans in control of both chambers, defense hawks have said they must make good on promises to reverse years of cuts to the Pentagon in order to fight the war on terrorism and keep other adversarial countries tamed.

But that would require either politically difficult spending cuts or tax increases, or else the GOP will have to break the spending caps it imposed in a 2011 debt deal with President Obama.

“Each move left or right loses votes for the leadership. That makes it very difficult to govern even when you have a majority of the votes,” said Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

The House Committee on the Budget approved its blueprint on a 22-13 party line vote Thursday after a shaky 24 hours that highlighted the defense rift.

Budget Chairman Tom Price’s budget cuts $5.5 trillion from spending over 10 years, overhauls Medicare into a voucherlike system and makes steep cuts to welfare programs.

It also gets around spending caps by setting aside $94 billion for a war account known as the Overseas Contingency Operations fund — $36 billion more than President Obama’s $58 billion request.

Senate Republicans called the maneuver a gimmick, although they weren’t thrilled with their own plan, which included $58 billion in war funds for fiscal 2016 and maintained sequester caps in later years.

Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, said the plan “fails to prioritize our national defense after years of damaging cuts to our nation’s military,” and lawmakers amended it Thursday to recommend $96 billion in war money, matching the House’s new aim.

The Senate Budget Committee passed the overall plan 12 votes to 10.

In the House, meanwhile, Mr. Boehner said members will debate whether to boost war spending to $96 billion without requiring $20 billion in offsetting savings.

“There is overwhelming support in our conference for providing additional resources to protect our national security,” he said at his weekly press conference. “We have been and will continue to work with all of our members on this issue.”

Congressional budgets are blueprints without the force of law, but they offer a comprehensive outline of each party’s agenda as lawmakers forge actual spending bills.

This year’s process hands the GOP a coveted path to putting an Obamacare repeal bill on Mr. Obama’s desk. But the procedure, known as “reconciliation,” requires both chambers to agree on a compromise budget resolution and then pass laws carrying out the budget’s instructions. Reconciliation is a powerful tool because it avoids a Democratic filibuster — though Mr. Obama would still wield a veto.

Coupled with the budget fight is a battle over updating an unpopular Medicare formula that controls payments to doctors. Lawmakers face an end-of-month deadline to avert a 21 percent cut to doctors’ Medicare payments so that doctors do not flee the program.

Passed as part of a budget deal in 1997, the “sustainable growth rate” was supposed to cap doctors’ payments as a way of limiting the growth of Medicare. But when it began to bite in the early 2000s, Congress balked at the cuts, and has approved repeated “patches” to boost make sure doctors’ full payments continue.

Most lawmakers would like to do away with the annual problem, but they have been unable to agree on where to find the nearly $200 billion needed over the next decade to cover the costs of a permanent fix.

On Thursday, congressional leaders said they have a framework for a replacement, which would give doctors a 0.5 percent pay raise each year for five years while streaming programs that evaluate their performance.

“I’ve been committed to finding a permanent solution to this problem. It’s a chance to get rid of Washington’s most infamous budget gimmicks,” Mr. Boehner said.

It will not be easy, though, as some conservatives have questioned why Mr. Boehner set out to work with Mrs. Pelosi before his own caucus.

“The door opened, and I decided to walk in it,” the speaker said. “Simple as that.”

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