By JENNIFER STEINHAUER
WASHINGTON – After eight years of chafing under President Barack Obama’s fiscal priorities, congressional Republicans were longing for a budget proposal that did the two things that have become the party’s mantra: Make broad cuts to federal spending and reduce the federal deficit.
Instead, President Donald Trump sent them a budget even many Republicans found difficult to love.
To fulfill a campaign promise to leave Social Security and Medicare – which represent more than 40 percent of annual federal spending – untouched while constructing an expensive border wall, Trump went after a relatively small pot of money, discretionary spending, goring Republicans’ pet programs in the process.
He does propose increasing military spending by 10 percent, something many conservatives would also like to see, but he probably cannot unilaterally break through legal budget caps, imposed after a battle in 2011 over raising the government’s statutory borrowing limit known as the debt ceiling.
Trump ran as a populist and stacked his Cabinet like a conservative, yet he delivered a budget that in many respects is neither. The result is deeply unsatisfying for many in his party, which has been yearning for a unified government to finally make major changes to entitlement programs to bring the deficit in line.
“This is a good budget if you want to spend your time fighting small fires,” said former Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, who as the Republican chairman of the Senate Budget Committee spent years trying to rally lawmakers to do the hard work to balance the budget. “It’s a statement of policy, which is legitimate, that the government is too big,” Gregg said. “As a practical matter, it does not affect the big issues that drive that.”
Congress could have eliminated every penny of domestic spending at its annual discretion this year, and it would not have balanced the federal budget, according to Congressional Budget Office projections, much less rid the nation of its nearly $20 trillion in government debt – which Trump told voters he could do easily in eight years.
It is precisely what conservatives have wanted to control.
“The fact is that until the president and Congress are willing to address the real drivers of our debt, Medicare and Social Security, we will be complicit in shackling future generations with the financial burden of our own lack of discipline,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. “That is not a legacy I want to leave.”
Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director, who as a member of the House was one of the biggest deficit hawks, was confronted with the budget’s failure to deal with the debt in a news conference with reporters Thursday.
“It’s a fair question,” he said. “I would just suggest to you it’s not the right time for the question. The budget blueprint, again, does not deal with the debt. It even doesn’t even deal with the deficit. It is simply the first part of the appropriations process.”
The budget document represents a broad-brush aspiration for Trump, leaving it to the House and Senate appropriations committees to do all the painful work, like finding a way to pay for a wall along the Mexican border that the White House wants.
But trying to pass appropriations bills with large cuts to popular domestic programs seems almost impossible in both chambers, especially the Senate, leading Congress on another path to short-term spending measures that Republicans have long wanted to escape.
The Congressional Budget Office foresees a federal deficit for the 2018 fiscal year of $487 billion, rising steadily from there until it reaches $1 trillion in 2023. But that is driven all by an aging population, rising health care costs and rising interest payments from the escalating debt.
Projected declines in discretionary spending under Trump’s plan would be more than swallowed by rising payments to Social Security and Medicare because the population age 65 and older is expected to grow by 39 percent through 2027. In that time, spending on people 65 and older who receive Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and military and federal civilian retirement income will rise from 37 percent of federal spending in 2017 to 45 percent in 10 years.
And many of his proposed cuts are at odds with congressional priorities.
His budget cuts spending for the National Institutes of Health, which lawmakers gave a big funding increase last year to help attack cancer and other diseases; community block grants, which help feed hungry children (a Democratic priority); and local law enforcement (popular with Republicans); as well as pet programs like funding to care for the Great Lakes, which Midwestern lawmakers have fought hard to maintain.
It even takes an ax to programs that are important to the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., by proposing cuts in funding for the Appalachian Regional Commission and some air service that would probably eliminate two airports in his state.
McConnell on Thursday went in search of a silver lining.
“I’m pleased to see an increased focus on our national security and veterans budgets,” he said in a statement. “These are positive steps in the right direction. I look forward to reviewing this and the full budget when it is released later this spring.”