The opening shots in the battle to lift spending caps in Congress were fired on Thursday when Republican budget hawks teamed up with Democrats in the House to try to take down part of a funding bill for veterans.
A band of Republicans, led by Rep. Mick Mulvaney, (R-S.C.), joined Democrats, led by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), in an attempt to prevent Republicans from funneling $532 billion from an off-the-books defense fund, known as the Overseas Contingency Operations funds or OCO, to bolster the budget for Military Construction and Veterans Affairs.
It wasn’t the kind of bipartisanship leaders usually celebrate but it is the start of what could be a difficult series of negotiations over how to avoid tight spending caps, known as the sequester, that Congress approved nearly four years ago. Mulvaney said using budget gimmicks, like OCO, is just a way of avoiding the inevitable fight.
“We could start that debate today but we’re not,” Mulvaney said. “We still see members of my own party clinging to the naïve concept that we can use the OCO budget and no one will notice. Not going to happen.”
Legislation to approve funding for military construction and veterans affairs is usually an easy bipartisan sell in the House. It is tough for any member to turn down a bill that funds health care for veterans but the unrest over OCO is part of a bigger fight.
Many Republicans want to return to principles laid out by former Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), last year. The so-called Ryan budget vowed to ensure the special defense funds were “not abused as a means of evading the statutory caps on discretionary spending.”
But Ryan wrote his budget under the umbrella of a deal he brokered with Sen. Patty Murray, (D-Wash.) that temporarily lifted the same spending caps plaguing budget writers today. That deal expires this year and the spending caps can’t be avoided without a deal to find savings elsewhere in the budget.
A large group of lawmakers in both parties, including House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.), agree they want to lift the widely hated spending caps but actually reaching a deal won’t be easy.
“Let’s get together and solve the challenge of sequester in a responsible way by decreasing spending on the mandatory side so we can find the resources that are so vitally necessary on the discretionary side,” Price said on the House floor Thursday.
That’s where the agreement typically ends. Democrats want equal increases for domestic and military spending. Republicans want more military spending but want to make big cuts to programs like Medicaid, low-income housing support, Pell grants for low-income students and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps.
For now, Republicans are turning to OCO to get the ball rolling. But Democrats have one big pocket ace — President Obama has said he will veto any one-off funding bills or any legislation that fails to match domestic and military spending.
“What Republicans have done is use this OCO account as a slush fund to avoid the tough questions,” Van Hollen said. “This is the first skirmish in that battle.”