Repeal of Health Law Faces Obstacles in House, Not Just in Senate

February 28, 2017

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Source: The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Like many presidents before him, President Trump is pushing a bold budget proposal. But for a business executive used to getting his way, he is likely to find, as his predecessors did, that final budgets often bear little resemblance to the originals after being run through the shredder on Capitol Hill.

Here is a look at some of the main issues hanging over the coming budget and spending fight.

What are the overall prospects for the deep domestic spending cuts proposed in the Trump budget?

Taking the ax to the Environmental Protection Agency or to State Department aid programs may excite Mr. Trump’s supporters, but he is unlikely to succeed to the extent he would like.

His budget is simply a starting point and any cuts would have to be made through the congressional appropriations process. Though in the minority, Democrats retain significant leverage in crafting that legislation and can block bills they oppose in the Senate.

“Enacting appropriations law — as opposed to proposing nonbinding budget resolutions — will likely require Democratic votes,” Representative Nita Lowey of New York, the senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, noted tartly on Monday. It is doubtful cuts of the kind being proposed will fly.

If the budget is simply advisory, why release one at all?

Presidential budgets are important as statements of policy and budgetary goals. They stand mainly as political manifestoes of what the White House hopes to achieve — and would do if it had its own way.

The Trump administration’s budget also serves as a message to those who supported the new president that he intends to follow through on his campaign promises to cut government spending, even while bolstering the military.

Mr. Trump can point to his budget as an illustration of what he had wanted to do before Congress got in his way. And while the unveiling of a budget draws a lot of media attention, the failure to meet many of its goals months or years later seldom produces anywhere near as much news coverage.

Can Mr. Trump win his spending increases for the Pentagon?

Military spending remains popular and touches every state and most House districts, giving lawmakers ample incentive to support it. President Barack Obama had proposed his own spending increases.

But Democrats have insisted that any increase in Pentagon spending must be matched by higher spending on domestic programs that they favor. The Trump budget, instead, seeks to raise military spending and offset the increases with cuts to domestic programs — an approach most Democrats and some Republicans will resist.

At the same time, some conservative House Republicans have previously balked at Pentagon increases, arguing that they are wasteful. Then there is Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who chairs the Armed Services Committee and argues the White House is not seeking enough new money for the military. Some higher Pentagon spending is possible, but it is unclear it will be enough to satisfy Mr. Trump or Republican hawks. And it won’t come easily.

Could Democrats face political repercussions if they oppose more money for the troops?

Republicans certainly hope so. They will try to keep as much pressure on Democrats as possible. One strategic approach Republicans are likely to embrace is to move first on a Pentagon spending bill with added spending and then dare Senate Democrats to oppose it, attacking them for shortchanging the military.

If Democrats relent and approve the bill, they will sacrifice some of their political influence over the rest of the budget. Top Democrats say their success or failure will depend on a willingness to remain united in their budget position.

The party did so last year and successfully derailed the appropriations process. But they are worried about their ability to do so again this year with 10 Senate Democrats up for re-election in 2018 in states won by Mr. Trump.

Speaking of the appropriations process, isn’t it in disarray?

Yes. In recent years, Congress has failed miserably when it comes to passing annual spending bills — the most basic responsibility of lawmakers — and has instead relied on a series of stopgap measures.

Last year, the House and Senate sent Mr. Obama just one of the 12 required annual appropriations measures. The government is now running under a temporary funding bill called a continuing resolution, which expires on April 28.

Given the level of budget discord, it is conceivable the government will run the entire fiscal year ending Sept. 30 at last year’s spending level. That possibility illustrates the fundamental problem for Mr. Trump. Budget priorities are enacted through the appropriations bills. Passing appropriations bills requires some level of bipartisan cooperation. As budget details emerge, it appears Mr. Trump’s spending plan will not elicit much Democratic support, severely limiting his chances of success.

What about Social Security and Medicare?

This fight is more between Mr. Trump and Republicans on Capitol Hill. Mr. Trump promised repeatedly during his campaign to leave those huge programs untouched, reassuring his voters who rely on them.

Congressional Republicans, notably Speaker Paul D. Ryan, have in the past proposed significant structural changes to the programs — particularly Medicare — to win real budget savings. If such entitlement programs are left out of the equation, more dollars have to be squeezed from agency budgets, setting up the fight over federal priorities likely to consume Congress later this year.

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