With Congress gone for a spring break, the White House made sure everyone knew House Republicans had yet to put out a budget resolution, and weren’t going to before the April 15 deadline to pass one.
Days before they left, President Joe Biden said in a letter to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) “My hope is that House Republicans can present the American public with your budget plan before Congress leaves for the Easter recess so that we can have an in-depth conversation when you return.”
McCarthy, instead of offering up such a resolution, has been demanding the White House come to the budget negotiating table. When McCarthy asked again on Monday, a White House spokesman issued a statement highlighting a report of House Republicans missing the deadline, which is in the 1974 law laying out the federal budget process but has no penalties for tardiness.
“President Biden remains eager to negotiate with Speaker McCarthy about budgets. But weeks after the President released his deficit-cutting budget, House Republicans left Washington for a two-week recess without submitting their own,” the spokesman said.
In one critic’s eye, the White House is taking advantage of the ambiguity around the word “budget” in Washington. What the White House is asking House Republicans to do is provide something far less detailed and useful for negotiations than what the White House put out — and much more politically difficult.
The White House budget is a massive, multi-volume affair so detailed that it has proposed language for lawmakers to use when writing funding bills. A budget resolution contains barebones tables, lacks policy language and is mostly non-binding in nature.
This is to the White House’s advantage, according to Doug Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office and president of the conservative American Action Forum think tank.
“A budget presumes a lot more than a budget resolution and they should never really be compared,” he said. In his view, the White House is goading McCarthy to produce something politically difficult that’s not all that useful for negotiating anyhow.
“It’s deliberately disingenuous,” he said. “[The White House] could easily sit down with their budget, which are proposals that don’t have any force of law, and any list the Republicans have, and they’d be on a comparable footing.”
“A budget presumes a lot more than a budget resolution and they should never really be compared.”
But one key problem is that Republicans have no such list — so it’s hard to have that sit-down. And, as White House officials are quick to point out, it was McCarthy himself who promised a budget resolution.
“It’s not complicated: Speaker McCarthy — who said passing a budget was his ‘very first responsibility’ — must spell out exactly which programs hardworking families rely on he will slash in order to give tax giveaways to the super-wealthy and special interests,” White House spokesman Michael Kikukawa told HuffPost.
“Will he cut health care, education, border security, manufacturing, defense spending, Medicare or support for families with children? We can’t have one-sided budget negotiations — the President put forward his priorities, the Speaker must do the same.”
Further complicating matters is that these are no ordinary budget negotiations — the threat of default because of a debt ceiling breach hangs in the background.
On the one hand, Republicans have said they will not raise the debt ceiling this summer or early fall without as-yet-unspecified cuts in spending. The White House has said raising the debt ceiling is non-negotiable, but a separate discussion may be held about the budget. But that discussion can only take place, though, once Republicans put forward their fiscal plan.
And that’s where the rub is. The stances have led to a rhetorical “no, you go first” standoff, with the GOP complaining the White House won’t negotiate and the White House asking Republicans to say what their plan is before negotiating. Meanwhile, the Treasury Department’s ability to stave off default with accounting moves dwindles by the day.
So far, the White House has held the upper hand in the public debate, as Republicans have released barely any specific budget demands yet, much less offered or passed a budget resolution. Brian Deese, then the director of the White House’s National Economic Council, on Feb. 6 said the logical counter bid to the White House’s budget would be a budget resolution.
“We are continuing to hope and expect that the House Republicans will put out a budget plan, will bring forward a budget resolution. That is the way that the process works most effectively,” he said.
So far, though, the closest House Republicans have come to specifying what they want is a letter McCarthy sent to the White House, saying the GOP desires to cut annual spending to “pre-inflationary” levels, strengthen work requirements for some federal benefits, claw back unspent COVID money and enact unspecified proposals on border security and energy production.
The House GOP’s difficulties in coalescing even around a budget resolution were highlighted by a report in The New York Times of infighting among McCarthy and some of his deputies over debt limit strategy.
An administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged the White House budget and a budget resolution differ greatly in detail. Still, the official said, it would be an improvement over what the House GOP has released so far. And, the official said, it’s a low bar.
“I don’t think anybody over here is expecting them to put out a 1,600-page budget with legislative language and details on every account,” the official said. “It’s not unreasonable for us to say, ‘We’ve told you what we’re for. What are you for?’ And it can’t just be four bullets in a one-and-a-half-page letter. It has to have some meat to it.”
“It’s not unreasonable for us to say, ‘We’ve told you what we’re for. What are you for?’ And it can’t just be four bullets in a one-and-a-half-page letter. It has to have some meat to it.”
Whatever Republican leaders put forward, they should also show they can pass it, the official said, “to demonstrate that they have 218 votes for whatever they are demanding or for whatever their position is.”
An expert with the liberal Center for American Progress said the White House has a point in that even a budget resolution would provide some details, like annual spending targets or cumulative totals over the 10-year budget window, that the GOP has yet to disclose.
“It is very popular to say, broadly, we should cut spending, and then it is very unpopular when you try to actually figure out what spending should be cut. And so I don’t think it is unreasonable at all,” said Bobby Kogan, senior director for federal budget policy for the Center and a veteran of the Biden Office of Management and Budget.
However, Kogan said anyone expecting a budget resolution to be put together quickly will be disappointed. It can often take weeks to round up support from various party factions before a vote, a daunting prospect for a GOP majority with only four votes to spare and a speaker seen as beholden to his conference’s right wing.
“The speaker likely doesn’t want to put out a budget resolution yet because he knows the details behind the proposal will be too unpopular to garner support,” Kogan said.
“Right now, it’s kind of been a black box. We don’t know how much progress has been made. We don’t know what the difficulty is. We don’t know where the hold up is. And so we don’t actually know how close they are.”