For House Republicans, It’s Fiscal First

Tim Alberta
National Journal

If the fiscal fights that defined the opening act of the 113th Congress were supposed to suddenly take a backseat to other issues, someone forgot to tell House Republicans.

With Congress consumed in recent weeks by gun control and immigration reform, the political spotlight has largely shifted away from Washington’s well-documented series of budgetary battles. This shift has been particularly pronounced in the Senate, recently besieged by long days of emotional discussion over everything from murdered schoolchildren to the legal status of the alleged Boston bombers.

But in the House, it’s largely been business as usual, with a consistent focus on fiscal issues and an overt emphasis on preparing for the looming battle this summer over the federal borrowing limit.

Indeed, as the Senate holds additional hearings Wednesday on immigration reform, the House Ways and Means Committee will consider a bill that would prioritize payments if the debt ceiling is not raised. The legislative preference being given to the Full Faith and Credit Act—which for weeks has been championed by leading House conservatives—is reflective of a House GOP strategy that focuses almost exclusively on spending-related issues and pushes almost everything else to the periphery.

This approach was made evident by leadership twice in the last month. Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, penned a memo to members of the House Republican Conference in late March to congratulate them for putting Democrats “on defense” in the early stages of the new session. The next week, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., sent members a memo outlining leadership’s legislative priorities upon returning from the spring recess, including a push for the legislation that would prioritize payments in the event of a debt-ceiling standoff.

Notably absent from both missives were the words “gun” and “immigration.”

That’s not to say House Republicans don’t have an opinion on either subject, or that some members aren’t working on legislation relating to them. But on the whole, House Republicans believe they have been very successful in the early stages of this Congress, and they attribute their collective achievements to a fiscal-first approach. From keeping the sequester cuts, to passing a continuing resolution with post-sequester spending levels, to passing a 10-year balanced budget, conservatives feel they have dictated the legislative tempo thus far, and don’t see any reason to shift their strategy now.

“If you look at our track record in the first three months, it’s been very successful,” said Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., who chairs the Republican Study Committee. “We’ve gotten, I think, some significant wins.”

House Republicans say these “wins” were what they hoped for back in January, when the conference gathered for its annual retreat in Williamsburg, Va. There, members agreed to a temporary extension of the debt limit in exchange for leadership’s pledge to hold the line on the three major fiscal fights ahead: sequester, the CR, and the budget.

This agreement, since dubbed “the Williamsburg Accord,” pushed the debt-ceiling dispute to the back of the line, allowing House Republicans to first fight—and win—a series of smaller battles over spending. These victories, Republicans hoped at the time, would unify the conference and give them momentum heading into the summer showdown over the debt ceiling.

The plan, by all indications, has worked. Leadership went three-for-three in delivering on the conservative wish list, something many lawmakers would not have predicted back in January. But conservatives are being cautious not to celebrate these early successes, since the toughest test is yet to come.

“So far, so good—but the big step is the one coming,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, looking ahead to the debt-ceiling showdown. Jordan, a leading House conservative, said everything House Republicans have accomplished thus far—and everything they will fight for this summer—are steps in the direction of a grand ideological goal: balancing the federal budget by bringing mandatory spending under control.

“It’s all about bringing the spending down so we can get to balance,” said Jordan, who noted that he is “cautiously optimistic” about gaining significant concessions from President Obama this summer, and thus avoiding a default.

But not all conservatives are bullish on brokering a deal with Obama—especially when the president has said he won’t put entitlement reforms on the table without higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans. House Republicans have insisted they will not agree to another tax increase, and conservatives have made it clear they expect Boehner to reject any “grand bargain” that includes such a revenue hike.

“The president’s gotten his tax increase,” said Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga. “He fought for it, and God bless him ... he got it. So that’s done.”

This refusal to accept another round of tax hikes helps to explain the conservative enthusiasm behind the Full Faith and Credit Act, which would direct the Treasury Department to make all payments on federal debt and interest in the event an agreement to extend the debt-limit is not reached. Conservatives say this legislation would avoid a government default on its loans, thereby depriving Obama of a valuable talking point against Republicans.

“The winning formula for avoiding default is having the president not want to default,” Price said.