Can Republicans govern? Budget 2016 could be biggest test.

Republican leaders vow to show that they can govern effectively by following through on a budget. But that will take compromises both within the Republican caucus and with the president.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky (l.), joined by Senate majority whip John Cornyn of Texas, speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill on last month. The Republican leadership team faces an early test of its capacity to govern with this year's annual budget process, which began this week with the release of the White House budget on Monday.

The new GOP-controlled Congress, keen to prove that Republicans can govern, is faced with its first big test in Governing 101: the president’s $4 trillion budget proposal, delivered to Congress on Monday.

Appropriating money to pay for government is a basic function of Congress. Now that Republicans rule the roost under the Capitol dome, they’re promising to tackle this job properly: to have both houses agree on a budget blueprint by the April 15 deadline, to work out the details in 12 annual spending bills, to have both chambers agree on those bills, and send them to the president for his signature in time for the start of a new fiscal year on Oct. 1.

It’s a tall order. The last time Congress got to Step 1 – agreeing on a budget blueprint – was 2009. Since then, it’s been a perilous process, remembered for fiscal cliffs, a budget showdown, and forced across-the-board cuts (the dreaded “sequester”) that were never meant to be.

House speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky both say there will be no more shutdowns or fiscal cliffs. Yet both essentially declared the president’s budget dead on arrival – setting the stage for a fiscal food fight.

That doesn’t bode well for their governing pledge.

“To govern means to compromise,” says William Hoagland, senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank. “If Republicans want to prove they can govern, then the president and Congress will have to show they can compromise.”

As it stands, the president has started out with “a very clear ideological position that is almost 180 degrees opposite of the Congress,” says Mr. Hoagland, who has a long history of budget experience on the Hill.

The White House budget increases spending, raises taxes, and projects a $1.8 trillion trim to the deficit over a decade. Leaders of the House and Senate budget committees, on the other hand, plan a blueprint that balances the budget in 10 years. Republicans oppose tax and spending increases, though both parties are concerned about automatic spending cuts to the military. 

John Feehery, former spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois, says it’s “essential” that Republicans return to the regular budget process.

“If Republicans do this right, and they pass all the appropriations bills in regular order and get them through the House and Senate, they can present them to the president in a series of legislation that makes it awfully difficult for the president to veto,” he says.

At that point, he explains, the argument is no longer about the size of the pie, just the pieces of it – and which party’s priorities are included in those pieces.

Whether the Republicans succeed will come down to political will and patience. “There’s definitely going to have to be compromise,” says Feehery.

He says he is encouraged by Senator McConnell’s “promise to govern” as evidenced in last week’s passage of the Keystone pipeline bill. It gained the backing of nine Democrats after three weeks of debate and a much more open amendment process than was afforded Republicans under former majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada.

Also working in the leaders’ favor, he says, are voters. They may not care if Congress does its budget work, but sure do notice when it doesn’t. Republican presidential candidates, especially former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, will also want to see a Congress that’s functioning again, Feehery says.

But even with a GOP majority, just approving a budget blueprint – which only requires a majority vote in both houses – could be difficult. Conservative hardliners in the House will make their demands, while moderate Republican senators facing tough election battles in blue or purple states will make theirs, says Hoagland. Twenty-four Senate Republicans are up for election in 2016, compared to only 10 Democrats.

The process gets harder once committees take up to appropriation bills, which unlike the budget blueprint,will be subject to Democratic filibuster in the Senate and will have to clear a 60-vote threshold to pass. Republicans hold a 54-seat majority.

Even if McConnell can keep all Republicans with him on key votes – also a tall order – he still needs six Democrats to pass spending bills. 

There’s simply no getting around it, if Republicans want to prove they can govern, they’ll have to compromise. So will the president. On opening day of the budget process, neither seemed in a compromising mood.

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