Trump Budget Blueprint Drawing Tepid Response From Republicans

By Nancy Ognanovich

President Donald Trump’s budget blueprint boosting Defense by $50 billion but calling for deep cuts in non-defense spending is being met with a tepid response from key Republicans, who already are signaling they may deep-six much of the proposal.

While expressing support for increasing Pentagon spending, lawmakers said Trump’s team is unrealistic about the political landscape if it believes Congress will enact the significant cuts the president wants for domestic programs across the board.

Some well-placed Republicans are taking a similar stance on Trump’s $30 billion supplemental, which is expected to accompany the release of a skimpy fiscal year 2018 budget plan mostly focused on federal discretionary spending. While also supportive of that plan to help the military, lawmakers said they have serious doubts about giving Trump the federal money he wants to start building a border wall in the remaining months of fiscal 2017.

“It may not be possible to do everything we want to do by April 28,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said when asked about Trump’s plan to ask Congress to quickly appropriate the first slug of funds for the wall before a stopgap covering the government expires.

Trump’s bare-bones budget for next year and supplemental are arriving at the same time that Congress is struggling to finish the 11 fiscal 2017 spending bills held over from last year in order to give the new president more say over spending decisions. Federal money will lapse in only a few weeks unless lawmakers quickly settle and move legislation to close out last year’s work.

Top Republican appropriators said the White House faces a few reality checks as it pushes its budget plans forward.

“In the Senate it takes an agreement between enough Republican senators and Democratic senators to pass an appropriations bill,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee. “If a budget is presented that pays for Defense increases all from non-defense, I just don’t see a path forward.”

Border Wall Problematic

White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney previewed key elements of the supplemental and the fiscal 2018 budget in a March 6 radio interview and other venues, and also has met with House and Senate appropriators in recent weeks to discuss the administration’s plans.

Trump will propose a $54 billion increase for Defense next year and pay for it with across-the-board cuts to non-defense programs, Mulvaney said. The $30 billion supplemental will include an initial increase of funds to start building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, he added. On the latter, Mulvaney said the administration will seek more money for the project in the FY 2018 and FY 2019 budgets.

However, the prospect of deep cuts in favored domestic programs generated almost immediate criticism from lawmakers of both parties. Key appropriators overseeing the budgets for medical research, education and other non-defense programs have initiated early hearings to discuss the need to keep federal support stable.

Members of the House Appropriations Committee plan to begin hearings on the budget request the week of March 20 by calling top officials from the National Institutes of Health and the Education Department to testify.

Moran strongly favors federal investment in biomedical research. He said he’s also currently trying to help ranchers in Kansas and other states get disaster relief in the supplemental. Politically divisive budget proposals won’t help wrap up this year’s process or improve the outlook for next year, he said.

Among other things, Moran called “politically unacceptable” the administration’s plan to start building the border wall with money pulled from domestic programs.

“I don’t see how you find a way to do that,” Moran said.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) already announced that Democrats will block any year-end omnibus that carries money for Trump’s wall project. Cornyn, who is said to have concerns about eminent domain issues along the Texas border, signaled he’s also not fully on board for the plan.

Cornyn told reporters a firm plan hasn’t been developed and therefore the cost of what the White House said could be a 2,000-mile project isn’t known. Mulvaney has said some estimates start at $8 million per mile and others go up to $25 million per mile.

“I would propose we come up with a plan and then we can figure out when and how to fund it,” Cornyn said. “Does that sound unreasonable?”

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the senior appropriator who chairs the Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee, said the Trump administration is going to learn that Congress ultimately has the power of the purse.

“Congress, I don’t believe, has ever ratified a president’s budget,” Shelby told reporters.

While plans to increase Defense are needed, Shelby said he can’t support the deep cuts in State Department funds that he and other lawmakers expect to see in the budget.

“We also are mindful of our friends in the world,” Shelby said. “We live in a big world.”

Still, Shelby said there may be some elements of the budget that are to lawmakers’ liking.

“As I said, anything is a proposal,” Shelby said. “It bears looking into—and sometimes it bears rejecting.”

‘S.S. Trump’ Threatens Endgame?

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) also said he supports increasing the Defense budget. Durbin, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, said that panel may be well served by the president’s plans.

But Durbin said he can’t support Trump’s plans to get the money from domestic programs ranging from those at State and Transportation to cover the Pentagon boost. He also said he can’t support putting billions into building a wall when there are less-expensive ways to improve border security.

Durbin said the arrival of the president’s budget and supplemental make it more difficult to predict how successful Congress will be to meet the April 28 deadline and avoid a fiscal crisis.

“It depends on whether Republicans want to get on the S.S. Trump and prepare for a stormy voyage or whether they want to launch their own boat,” Durbin said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at nognanov@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.