By Jennifer Steinhauer
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s proposal to slash domestic spending to preserve the two biggest drains on the federal government – Social Security and Medicare – has set up a battle to determine who controls the Republican Party’s ideology.
The outcome could map the course of major challenges to come, including a revision of the tax code, a huge increase in infrastructure spending and any effort to balance the budget.
Since the start of his insurgent campaign, Trump has opposed his party’s long-held positions on a range of policies, including free trade, how to deal with Russia and the future of government entitlement programs.
Trump’s budget blueprint – which is expected to be central to his address to Congress Tuesday night – sets up a striking clash with the House speaker, Paul Ryan, who has made a career out of pressing difficult truths on federal spending. For years, Ryan has maintained that to tame the budget deficit without tax increases and prevent draconian cuts to federal programs, Congress must be willing to change, and cut, the programs that spend the most money – Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
But Trump, in a dogged effort to fulfill his campaign promises, has turned that logic on its head in the budget outline he is expected to present to Congress this week. That blueprint would make good on his promise to increase spending on the military and law enforcement by $100 billion during the next 18 months. And it would extract all the savings he can from the one part of the budget already most squeezed, domestic discretionary spending, potentially decimating programs in education, poverty alleviation, science and health.
“For Paul Ryan, this seems to be the opportunity he has been waiting for and working for, for years,” said Douglas Elmendorf, the recently departed director of the Congressional Budget Office and current dean of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “But Paul Ryan’s budget plans with cuts to Social Security and Medicare are not that popular with most voters, and what helped elect Donald Trump was the promise not to cut benefits and programs, and that is an unresolved tension.”
None of this should be a real surprise: Trump repeatedly said during the campaign that Republican promises to transform Medicare, and slash entitlement spending, were the reason the party lost the White House in 2012, helpfully name-checking Ryan, who sat at the bottom of the ticket that year, in his analysis.
But Republicans in Congress had hoped that reality, combined with the influence of the two former Republican House members in Trump’s Cabinet – Tom Price, head of health and human services, and Mick Mulvaney, his budget director – would have led to new conclusions. Social Security, health care and net interest comprise nearly 60 percent of all federal spending, and that figure is expected to soar to 82 percent during the next 10 years; Mulvaney and Price have long been advocates for pruning.
This is not simply a fight for an ideological core – it is a question of what can pass Congress. A budget with no entitlement cuts and one that does not balance most likely has no chance of passing the House, and could be rejected by Senate Republicans as well. Trump’s proposals are too far to the right in terms of domestic cuts and too far to the left in terms of balance.
If Congress fails to pass a budget blueprint for the fiscal year that begins in October, Trump’s promise to drastically rewrite the tax code could also die because the president was counting on that budget resolution to include special parliamentary language that would shield his tax cuts from a Democratic filibuster. Without it, any tax legislation would have to be bipartisan enough to clear the Senate with 60 votes.
“President Trump has talked about deeper domestic spending cuts than even House and Senate Republicans have talked about,” said Brian Riedl, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and federal budget expert who recently worked for Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.
“I think to a certain degree congressional Republicans understand they are going to have to drive the train on balancing the budget,” Riedl said. “The question is how far they can go with Trump in the White House. They certainly don’t expect him to barnstorm the country talking about how to rein in federal spending.”
Good luck with that, Elmendorf said. “The Republican establishment has consistently overestimated its ability to move Donald Trump to the positions it supports,” he said.
Democrats, of course, will be no friend to these proposals, and may be needed for some of them, such as major military spending increases.
“Democrats will make crystal clear the misplaced priorities of the administration and the Republican majority,” said Rep. Nita M. Lowey of New York, the highest-ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, “and we will fight tooth and nail to protect services and investments that are critical to hardworking American families and communities across the country.”
The one thing that might get Republicans off the hook: big tax cuts. Should they find a way to do that without Democrats by employing a procedural maneuver that requires a mere majority vote in the Senate, the question of cuts in spending or programs may be pushed to another day.
If not, Trump is most likely going to have to find allies in Congress, hopefully his own party. This goes for all policy. “Trump can use Tuesday’s speech to align himself with his base,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican operative who once worked for former Speaker John A. Boehner. “But there has to be equal attention paid to exactly how you get it all done with Congress.”