President Obama and Republicans in Congress are squaring off on the nation’s spending priorities for the year. Wyoming Republicans are proving an especially pointed thorn in President Obama’s side on the final budget he sent to Congress.
Every year here in Washington there’s a special dance that occurs between the White House and lawmakers in Congress. Feel free to think of it as the Budget Tango: like all things policy oriented, it’s not sexy. That is, unless you’re an accountant like Wyoming’s senior Senator Mike Enzi. But this year he decided there would be no dance. Enzi and other top Republicans upended decades of sacred congressional protocol and refused to even invite Obama administration officials to the Capitol to discuss their budget numbers.
“I thought this would save the president a little embarrassment,” Enzi said. “In the past every time that we voted on the president’s budget, the most votes he got, including Democrats, is One. Most of the time it was Zero. So it’s not a significant budget, and holding a hearing on it doesn’t do anything.”
Enzi is known as a policy guy. But critics say his presidential snub reeks of petty partisanship run amok. Former Democratic chair of the budget committee, Patty Murray of Washington State, says Enzi and other party leaders are merely hiding.
“Obviously they don’t want any discussion of what the priorities are for the president, and that’s really unfortunate,” Murray says.
Current Democratic senator and Former Virginia Governor Mark Warner says Enzi’s decision may strengthen the GOP in the short term but in the end it weakens the nation.
“They can complain about the budget – that’s their right. But for a group that complained about not doing budget, not even to start the process in an official way, makes me scratch my head,” he says. “I know it’s a presidential campaign year. But it’s this kind of behavior where I think the vast majority of Americans say ‘pox on both your houses.’”
Enough about snubs, let’s get into the details of the president’s four point one trillion dollar budget.
A small but powerful group of House Republicans are trying to slash the budget numbers already agreed to by congressional Republicans and the Democratic White House. Wyoming Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis is a member of the tea-party tinged House Freedom Caucus which is dead set on slashing the budget agreement reached at the end of last year by thirty billion dollars, even though that could derail the GOP’s chances of even passing a budget this year.
“We’re, in my opinion, in a tough position now that those numbers have been approved, to compel or cajole our conference to bring them down,” Lummis says.
That’s not stopping her though. She’s even found a unique revenue making system, selling off what she calls surplus U.S. government properties. Lummis thinks her proposal gives her party an out when it comes to covering the new spending levels agreed to last year before Speaker Boehner left office.
“I want to come to the negotiating table with honest alternatives so I can try to get to ‘Yes’ but right now I haven’t seen any proposals other than the ones I’m coming up with.”
Senator Mike Enzi disagrees.
“I don’t think that’s optional.”
In a sense, Enzi is asking for even more than Lummis. While she wants to find $30 billion in savings at the last minute, he wants to overhaul how budgeting is done in Washington. Enzi is hoping his party can negotiate new terms during this election year.
“It can’t be done in the same way for another four years if it isn’t done now, and the reason it’s important now is that we don’t know who the next president will be and we don’t know what the majorities will be after the next election. So everybody ought to be pretty reasonable on trying to figure out a way to keep our country financially sound.”
The president’s budget has practical implications on your life: It calls for a focused effort to eradicate cancer, while making early childhood education more affordable and accessible. It also seeks to double down on efforts to boost the renewable energy sector, as it would hike taxes by $10 a barrel on oil. That’s unacceptable to Wyoming’s junior senator John Barrasso.
“It’s basically a tax on hard working families, which shows the president wants to make us less competitive than Russia, than Iran,” Barrasso says. “And it’s heading in the wrong direction. Energy is a master resource and the president is trying to make America less competitive globally by proposing raising a gas tax of about $.25 per gallon. I oppose it!”
But lawmakers from coastal regions are praising the president’s vision. Here’s South Florida Democrat Alcee Hastings.
“Something is going on with sea level rise that needs to be addressed and if we do not, in the future, way beyond my lifetime, but sooner than later, you can expect there are going to be serious consequences.”
This is an election year. While neither party is likely to see many items on their competing wish lists checked off, the competing budget priorities will play a central role when voters cast ballots. Whether Enzi and Republicans overplayed their hand or whether the White House had no hand to play is yours to decide at the ballot box.