Health Care, Other Issues Cloud Outlook for Budget Efforts

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By Jonathan Nicholson

Lawmakers will miss the April 15 target date for adopting a federal budget outline for the second year in a row. But the extent of their tardiness will probably depend on a variety of factors, according to lawmakers and Capitol Hill aides.

While there are no penalties for missing the April 15 date, a slow start for Congress’s annual budget resolution could impact other Republican priorities, most notably the House Republican leadership’s hopes of getting a massive tax system overhaul enacted into law by the month-long August legislative break.

Most of the reasons for the delay are not under the control of budget writers in both the House and Senate. They include the continuing do-they-or-don’t-they efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, lack of certainty over whether a tax revamp should be revenue-neutral or cut taxes, and the delayed rollout by the White House of crucial parts of its own budget plan, including its tax and mandatory spending proposals.

No Date Yet: Enzi

On top of those issues is the question—at least in the House—of whether the ideological split between the GOP’s hard-core conservative and libertarian members and its more moderate members revealed by the health-care fight will also show up in a budget fight.

Getting the fiscal 2018 budget done by the April 15 date set in the 1974 Congressional Budget Act was always going to be somewhat of a stretch, given the other priorities Republicans placed ahead of it and a congressional calendar that includes a two-week break in the middle of April. But as lawmakers left the Capitol in the April 3 week, it was uncertain how soon it might be brought up after they return.

“I can’t tell you any date yet,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) April 5. On the House side, no decisions have been made either on timing.

The resolution of congressional Republicans’ attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act is seen as the major—though by no means the sole—obstacle to clearing things up. Under the GOP strategy agreed upon in December, Republicans would use two budgets and two follow-on budget reconciliation bills to pass ACA repeal and a tax overhaul.

But those follow-on bills are limited in their scope and, more importantly, Republicans worry a second budget resolution with reconciliation instructions for a tax overhaul would result in the ACA reconciliation bill (H.R. 1628), losing its filibuster-proof status in the Senate. That was not seen as a problem as long as the ACA bill was enacted before the fiscal 2018 resolution was adopted.

‘Working This for Weeks’

How quickly the bottleneck over an ACA repeal will be resolved, if ever, is unclear. At an April 5 forum on Wisconsin politics, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said lawmakers could still spend a few weeks after they return to Washington April 25 trying to hammer out an ACA repeal compromise between the factions of the party.

“We can keep working this for weeks now,” he said. “We don’t have some kind of artificial deadline in front of us. We had an ideal calendar in front of us, which was to have this processed through the system in April. But it was a calendar that I laid out for 2017 that clearly has room to breathe. And we’re in the breathing room right now.”

If an ACA deal proves impossible to broker among House Republicans, there is speculation the reconciliation instruction used for that legislation could instead be re-purposed for a tax overhaul, giving Republicans a way to speed ahead on that issue without waiting for a new fiscal 2018 budget resolution. But it is unclear whether doing that would expose the tax reconciliation to a procedural challenge in the Senate, and both the White House and the House Ways and Means Committee have expressed a preference for using the 2018 budget process instead for tax changes.

Renewed Split Possible

That strategy raises its own problems. For one thing, the White House has said it won’t send up its own budget proposals on taxes and entitlement programs until mid-May. If budget writers wait for that, and if they passed a budget resolution relatively quickly, tax writers would not have their guarantee that their follow-on bill would be filibuster-proof until June. That would give them only two months to get to agreement before the self-imposed August break deadline.

The fiscal 2018 revenue numbers in the budget would also need agreement. President Donald Trump has sometimes said tax changes should result in a cut in taxes while House Republican leaders have said a tax overhaul should raise the same amount of money, though their definition of the same amount includes factoring in forecasts of faster economic growth and ignoring the costs of letting taxes currently slated to come into effect instead being eliminated.

Finally, getting a fiscal 2018 budget—often the toughest vote for a congressional majority party in the years budgets are adopted—may mean re-opening the rift among House Republicans between the House Freedom Caucus and more moderate members. That split appeared to sink the ACA repeal effort in late March and early April.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) told reporters April 4 that it would be wrong to assume the pattern seen in the health-care fight would re-emerge over the budget.

“Health care touches every person we serve so it’s uniquely passionate in its debate,” Meadows said. “So I think to take any lessons from this would be to make a leap that would not be appropriate.”

Needed at Some Point

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a House Appropriations subcommittee chairman and a member of the House Budget Committee, said time is starting to run out on getting a budget.

“I think they would like to do it by May. But they have to do it at some point. We have to have a 302(a),” Cole said, referring to the annual appropriations limit usually set in the budget. “We have to start marking up appropriations bills.”

In the Senate, one Republican aide said he hoped Republican leaders weren’t waiting until May to decide what to do, given the potential impacts from a delay.

“They better be thinking about it before then,” the aide said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan Nicholson in Washington at jnicholson@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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