WASHINGTON — House and Senate GOP negotiators neared agreement Monday on a budget blueprint that would enable Republicans controlling Congress to more easily target President Barack Obama's signature health care law while delivering an almost $40 billion budget boost to the Pentagon.
The emerging plan relies on deep cuts to domestic agency budgets and safety net programs for the poor to promise a balanced budget by 2024. But it drops a controversial House proposal to radically overhaul the Medicare program. It also eliminates the option of using a fast-track budget bill to target food stamps and Pell Grants.
The measure is not yet finalized, but congressional aides familiar with its outlines say it'll likely be made official Monday or Tuesday and be ratified by House and Senate votes this week. The aides required anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record while talks were still ongoing.
At issue is the annual congressional budget resolution for the 2016 fiscal year. The plan sets broad budget goals but by itself has little teeth; instead, painful follow-up legislation would be required to actually balance the budget. It also permits the GOP majority to suspend the Senate's filibuster rule and deliver a special measure known as a reconciliation bill to Obama without the threat of Democratic opposition.
Republicans plan to use the special filibuster-proof bill to wage an assault on Obama's Affordable Care Act rather than try to impose a variety of painful cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, student loans, and other so-called mandatory programs over Obama's opposition. Obama is sure to veto any attempt to repeal the health law, too, but Republicans want to deliver such a measure to Obama anyway.
The GOP plan is generally similar to cuts proposed by former Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., — whose budget was largely endorsed by Mitt Romney as the duo formed the GOP presidential ticket in 2012 — with one significant difference. This year's compromise drops Ryan's plan to change Medicare into a voucher-like program for retirees joining the program in 2024.
This "premium support" plan would save significant money in future years by subsidizing purchases of private health insurance on the open market. But it would cover a smaller share of retirees' health costs as time goes on, which has drawn fierce opposition from Democrats and has unnerved Republican senators up for re-election in swing states.
The plan is likely to be a litmus test nonetheless for GOP presidential candidates. Two of the Senate's Republican presidential hopefuls, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, voted against the Senate's budget last month as too timid, while Florida's Republican Sen. Marco Rubio endorsed it.
For now, the measure would allow for the advance of the 12 annual spending bills for the 2016 budget year beginning Oct. 1 to the House and Senate floors. Automatic spending cuts known as sequestration have forced cuts upon both domestic agencies and the defense budget but the GOP budget plan promises to alleviate the Pentagon cuts by padding off-budget war accounts by $38 billion.
The White House, however, is opposed to easing Pentagon cuts without providing relief to domestic programs as well. That has many Washington budget-watchers looking to a possible small-caliber budget pact later this year that would provide partial but immediate relief to agency budgets next year but paying for it by curbing spending elsewhere in the budget over the long term. The White House is open to the idea and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, endorsed the concept last week.
But first comes the vote on the budget resolution, which promises to break along party lines as Democrats blast its proposed spending cuts for disproportionately targeting the poor while Republicans try to sell the benefits of a balanced budget for the economy and future generations.
However, timidity on follow-up spending cuts makes this year's GOP balanced budget plan mostly an empty promise. Republicans are instead looking ahead to 2017, in hopes a GOP president occupies the Oval Office.