House Republicans released a 2016 spending blueprint Tuesday that seeks to fulfill the GOP goal of balancing the budget in 10 years, but does so by slashing Medicare and other safety net programs while dramatically boosting military spending.
The proposed annual budget, at $3.8 trillion, promises to lower taxes and revisits well-worn Republican ideas for shrinking government, including its signature proposal for overhauling Medicare with a voucher-like private insurance option.
What's new this year is the determination by Republicans to bolster Pentagon spending above President Obama's proposed level.
Republicans mostly agree on wanting to rescue the Pentagon from the looming "sequester" cuts — the deep reductions that Congress reluctantly agreed to four years ago as part of a deal to avoid defaulting on the nation's debt.
But how to prevent those reductions from hindering the military while still adhering to strict overall spending limits sought by fiscal conservatives remains a challenge, making Republicans' ability to pass a budget through Congress look uncertain.
So far, it does not appear that Senate Republicans, who are expected to unveil their own budget plan Wednesday, are ready to back the blueprint of their House colleagues. Key differences remain over how deeply to cut social-welfare programs and where to find the money to offset sequester cuts for the Pentagon.
"We do not rely on gimmicks or creative accounting tricks to balance our budget," said House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.). "We do it the old-fashioned way — we make sure the programs we fund serve the priorities of the American people in a more efficient and effective manner, and reduce spending where that is not the case."
Congressional budget proposals do not carry the force of law, but serve as important tools in guiding the coming debate over government spending.
With Republican majorities now in both the Senate and the House, the budget process also opens the door for a procedural maneuver that could allow Congress to approve related bills with a simple majority vote, avoiding Democratic filibusters in the Senate. That could be the GOP's best chance to push through controversial bills to confront Obama on such issues as healthcare.
But if Republicans are unable to unite around a budget, their hopes of passing bills to repeal the Affordable Care Act or challenging other Obama administration priorities may be lost.
"It's going to be really important for us to do that — passing a budget is a high priority," said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 3 Republican in the Senate.
Under the House GOP plan, military funds would be supplemented by a separate account used for overseas contingency operations. The funds are currently used mostly to fight terrorism.
Some conservative Republicans, though, oppose that approach. The Senate GOP is likely to recommend establishing a new type of reserve fund that could be used to increase funds for the military by reducing spending elsewhere.
"It's a little messy," acknowledged Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), a leading conservative.
The sequester cuts were devised in 2011, after tea party conservatives swept into power in the House and demanded deep cuts in government spending in exchange for raising the nation's borrowing capacity. Obama and Congress proposed across-the-board spending cuts that were deemed so draconian that they would force both parties into a compromise. Instead, no deal was reached and the sequester cuts took place, though a temporary budget deal reached in 2013 offset some of the reductions until October.
Last month, Obama also proposed doing away with the sequester cuts. His 2016 budget did so across the board, protecting both the military accounts and non-defense programs from the steep reductions. The White House would pay for the increased spending by imposing tax hikes on wealthy Americans and corporations.
In brief remarks before attending a St. Patrick's Day celebration Tuesday, the president conveyed his disappointment with the Republican blueprint.
"Unfortunately, what we are seeing right now is a failure to invest in education and infrastructure and research and national defense — all the things that we need to grow, to create jobs, stay at the forefront of innovation and keep our country safe," Obama said. "It's not a budget that is going to help ensure that middle-class families are able to maintain security and stability."
Democrats largely prefer the president's approach and will probably oppose the GOP budget, reluctant to increase military spending without also halting the sequester cuts that are about to fall on the other departments, including social programs for children and the poor.
"All the Republican budget does is rig the system in favor of the elite — and its phony claim of reaching 'balance' is built on a shaky foundation of huge gimmicks," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee. Critics say that the House GOP budget achieves its surplus thanks to projected economic growth that Republicans believe will be generated by their small-government policies and the resulting tax-revenue increases that would result.
Overall, the House Republican budget — which is similar to ones proposed in recent years — would increase defense spending by $387 billion over a decade. It cuts non-defense accounts by almost twice as much and turns the food stamps program over to the states, all while promising lower taxes for individuals and corporations.
The House GOP plan would fully repeal the Affordable Care Act, as well as its Medicaid expansion.
House Republicans also revived their proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher-like private system by 2024, overhauling the popular senior healthcare program. That would mean changes for those who are now in their mid-50s and younger.
Republicans also promise to target government waste, aiming at various anti-poverty programs they say are duplicative.