Today, the United States Senate voted 50-47 on party lines to proceed on what is expected to be a nail-biting attempt beginning Thursday to pass an actual 2018 budget. With Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) out indefinitely due to medical issues, the GOP can only afford one defection on the final budget vote. That's a problem for the party, because heavy doubts are already surfacing among two notoriously independent-minded senators—Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) and John McCain (R-Arizona). If both bail, the budget is doomed, and with it, tax reform.
Helpfully, and clarifyingly, the two longtime antagonists are squaring off over essentially the same issue—military spending—so the defeated senator could conceivably find himself alone in opposition. But McCain's desire to leave no dollar unspent on defense is broadly popular within the GOP, while Paul's principled objective of cutting the size of government…well, it used to be popular among Republicans, anyway.
Here's the men in their own words, as quoted and paraphrased by Politico:
Paul said he wants to get rid of the $43 billion in overseas war funding that exceeds federal budget caps Congress agreed to in 2011.
"I've told them I'm a 'yes' if they'll not exceed the budget caps," Paul said. "If leadership is unwilling to compromise with somebody who is concerned about the debt, then they deserve to lose." […]
"These are the people who come to our caucus every day and say: 'Oh the budget doesn't matter, it's just a vehicle to get to taxes,'" Paul said. "And yet when I ask for something they aren't willing to do it." […]
McCain made it clear he was still searching for a deal that would raise the spending caps — precisely the opposite of Paul's goal.
"We have to resolve the defense issue," McCain said. "We have to have sufficient spending for defense. More young men and women in the military are dying today because of a lack of readiness, training, equipment and funding. That has got to stop."
And since it's 2017, here's some Twitter-bitchiness:
Senators McCain and Graham are torpedoing the budget by insisting on busting the budget caps for more spending.
— Senator Rand Paul (@RandPaul) October 17, 2017
Getting more bad info @RandPaul.
Don't screw up #TaxReform now.
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) October 17, 2017
McCAIN on @RandPaul's objections to military spending in budget: "I don't pay any attention to Senator Paul. Nor does hardly anybody else."
— Sahil Kapur (@sahilkapur) October 17, 2017
While the Angry Birds vs. Wacko Birds angle is probably too irresistible, the biggest ongoing story here might be just how isolated Paul's views about actually cutting government have become now that Republicans control the levers of power. In a Politico article about tax reform yesterday, Paul said something that would have been routine for a Republican in 2011-2014, but vanishingly rare in 2017: "I'm a huge deficit hawk. My opinion has always been that you pay for a tax cut with spending cuts….And everybody else up here thinks you should pay for a tax cut by increasing somebody else's taxes."
What are all of those deficit hawks doing now? Vigorously waving the white flag.
As mentioned here two weeks ago, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, who just 30 months ago was excoriating GOP deficit spenders by saying such things as "There is no honest way to justify not paying for spending, no matter how often my fellow Republicans try," has now completely flipped the script, arguing that "We need to have new deficits." In the Politico tax-reform article, Mulvaney was even more clear:
"They simply do not have the political will on the Hill to solve this through the spending side of the equation," he said. "So we have to move to the revenue side."
This is a remarkable admission. The Tea Party wave of legislators came to Washington beginning in 2010 on explicit promises to cut spending and debt, and roll back Obamacare. They did a decent job using their House majority to restrain spending from 2011-2014, but beginning with Republicans re-taking the Senate in November 2014, fiscal conservatism has waned while GOP power has waxed. As Rep. Justin Amash (R-Michigan) complained to me in an early 2016 interview,
They're always promising that next time we'll be better. "We need the House," then "we need the Senate," then "we need the White House," then "we need a supermajority"—it seems like they're never really interested in actually doing anything in the present. The excuse is usually that we don't have the votes or we don't have the right president to sign the bill, but that highlights the problem with their thinking. They're not interested in persuading people. They're interested in waiting.
Another putative fiscal conservative offering shrug emojis to spending cuts is Amash's own close colleague Mark Meadows (R-North Carolina), chair of the House Freedom Caucus. From the Politico article:
Meadows…predicted Republicans will never have the nerve to cut spending, so they have to pass steep tax cuts to spur growth: "What you have to do is you have to mitigate the damage by being as aggressive as you can be on tax rates, which would lessen the damage of our lack of fiscal responsibility over time."
Funny, I don't remember that particular Tea Party slogan: We're too chicken to cut spending, so at least we'll blow up the debt!
This is a far, far cry from where Meadows was in February 2013, when, just after coming into office, he co-sponsored the Require a PLAN Act, mandating that "if the President's fiscal year 2014 budget does not achieve balance in a fiscal year covered by such budget, the President shall submit a supplemental unified budget by April 1, 2013, which identifies a fiscal year in which balance is achieved." In other words, then-president Barack Obama would be required to explain exactly when and how he would eventually balance the budget.
"It's time for the federal government to do what Americans—hardworking, taxpaying, Americans and small business owners across the country have to do: balance a budget and live within our means," Meadows said on the House floor. "The time is now."
The time for cutting government may have been now then, but it certainly is not now now. As Amash told me last month, fiscal sanity in 2017 is "looking as bad as any time I've seen since I've been in Congress."