The big problem with trying to cut spending in a debt ceiling bill

House Republicans are pushing Democrats to accept a debt ceiling bill that limits spending ahead of another meeting with President Joe Biden this week.

WASHINGTON — House Republicans are pushing Democrats to accept a debt ceiling bill that limits how much money Congress is allowed to spend next year.

But achieving that goal — and making it stick — would require breaking a logjam between the two parties that has persisted for over a decade: how to divvy up spending between military and domestic priorities.

Republicans want higher defense spending and Democrats want more money for nondefense programs like health care, education and help for veterans. In recent years, the two parties struck a detente: Just increase both, and everybody gets a win.

Now, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and his conservative allies want to shatter that compact, arguing that spending is out of control. But slashing domestic funding without touching the military, as many Republicans want to do, won’t fly with Democrats.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla, chair of the powerful Rules Committee, said defense spending should be spared because “it’s a very dangerous world right now.

“Look, I think threats set defense spending. Domestic priorities are wants and desires, but you don’t necessarily get everything. Defense is, to me, a very different level of commitment,” he said.

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Democrats made clear they want equal treatment between the two.

“There is certain parity between defense and nondefense” spending, said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. “And that’s an issue that’s important in our caucus.”

Heading into an expected meeting between President Joe Biden and congressional leaders this week, Republican lawmakers say an agreement on “spending caps” is important in securing their support to avert a dangerous debt default.

The House-passed debt ceiling bill would slash federal spending to fiscal year 2022 levels, requiring appropriators charged with allocating government funding to cut $131 billion compared with what Congress is currently spending.

Meeting that target without cutting defense funding would require a steep 17% cut to nondefense discretionary spending.

“Democrats will not let nondefense take a disproportionate share of deep cuts. So Republicans will have to moderate their cut demands if they want to spare defense,” said Brian Reidl, a former Senate Republican policy aide who now works at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative public policy think tank.

Reidl said they may be able to avoid the dispute by freezing spending rather than making cuts, suggesting “a two-year freeze” on federal spending as one possible endgame.

Republicans have avoided specifying what they’d cut, other than suggesting they could avoid cuts to military spending. When the White House argued that the House GOP’s debt ceiling bill — with its lack of specificity on spending cuts — would mean harmful cuts to veterans’ funding in the nondefense part of the budget, GOP leaders insisted they could spare veterans from cuts, too.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has trashed that bill as the “Default on America Act” and insisted that the debt limit and government funding be handled independently.

“This is too important for brinksmanship and reckless ultimatums,” Schumer wrote in a letter Friday. “White House staff, along with aides from my office, the Speaker’s office, Leader McConnell’s office, and Leader Jeffries’ office will continue to meet in an attempt to find a constructive way forward.”

McConnell is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.; Jeffries is House Majority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y.

Liam Donovan, a Republican lobbyist who analyzes legislative dynamics, said that both sides could agree to impose a spending cap for just one year. They could also agree on policy goals short of announcing an exact spending number. He suggested they could pair cuts with policies seen as creating “savings” and “growth.”

“Once you agree upon policy parameters, it becomes much more straightforward — a deal on top-line spending for at least one year, savings from unused Covid funds, a commitment to work on permitting [reform] or some other growth-oriented areas of mutual interest,” Donovan said.

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