Senator Thad Cochran, Republican of Mississippi and the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, hinted at Republican plans to look at the budget cycle as a way to reorder federal spending. He said it presented “an opportunity for Congress to re-examine programs across the government, and to address the significant fiscal challenges that face our country.”
The spending package approved by Congress this month made clear that lawmakers intend to reassert themselves as the prime force in federal spending policy, and they hope to achieve some level of bipartisan support. Unless Democratic votes can be rounded up, Congress would quickly revert to a cycle of short-term spending bills, and both sides would like to avoid that disruptive situation.
To do so, Republicans will have to veer significantly from Mr. Trump’s budget plan given the outrage of Democrats who see the proposal as an amalgam of punishing cuts in the social safety net coupled with obvious budget gimmicks deployed to disguise the true extent of the fiscal damage.
“This heartless spending plan attempts to balance the budget on the backs of the American middle class and would make life much harder for families and seniors,” said Senator Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota. He predicted that if passed, it “would likely send our country into an economic free fall.”
The budget plan submitted by Mr. Mulvaney is reminiscent of the conservative House budget alternatives written by the Republican Study Committee, the group he belonged to before defecting to form the even more conservative House Freedom Caucus. Those budgets were routinely rejected by Democrats and significant numbers of Republicans, and were seen more as ideological documents than fiscal plans. Now Mr. Mulvaney is writing budgets for the White House.
Republicans were virtually unanimous in their estimation that Mr. Trump’s plan would be heavily rewritten. The health care debate has reminded many congressional Republicans that large numbers of their constituents facing tough economic conditions rely on Medicaid and other federal support programs. They know cutting too deep could have hurt them in the 2018 midterms. And nearly $50 billion in proposed cuts to agriculture over the next decade immediately set off alarms with farm-state Republicans who thought their Trump-embracing constituents deserved better.
In a joint statement, Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas and Representative Mike Conaway of Texas, the Republican chairmen of the Senate and House Agriculture Committees, said they would “fight to ensure farmers have a strong safety net so this key segment of our economy can weather current hard times.” But they left the door open to cuts in food stamp programs managed by the Agriculture Department.
This is the quandary for many Republicans: They are all for reining in spending but want to make certain that their home-state priorities are walled off. For each Republican worried about farm subsidies, there are others who do not like the sound of less money for health research, the State Department, transit projects and popular programs like Head Start.
For instance, Representative Earl L. Carter, Republican of Georgia, said that curbing “Washington’s spending addiction” was overdue. At the same time, though, he said he would “fight for our ports, the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, the Coast Guard, our military installations, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center and other critical projects as discussions continue.”
Mr. Mulvaney was unapologetic about a fiscal approach that critics found meanspirited and in conflict with an American tradition of asking the haves to provide for the have-nots.
“Compassion needs to be on both sides of that equation,” he said on Tuesday. “Yes, you have to have compassion for folks who are receiving the federal funds, but also you have to have compassion for the folks who are paying it.”
Democrats will do all they can to try to make Mr. Trump, his economic team and Republicans on Capitol Hill own this budget proposal even though many elements will not survive. The challenge for congressional Republicans will be to enact spending policies that advance their desire to be more frugal without going so far that voters decide to restore budget power to the Democrats.