WASHINGTON — Some of President Trump’s best friends in Congress sharply criticized his first budget Thursday, with defense hawks saying the proposed hike in Pentagon spending wasn’t big enough, while rural conservatives and others attacked plans to cut a wide range of federal agencies and programs.
The bad mood among Republican critics was tempered by a consensus that the president’s budget wasn’t going very far on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers reminded everybody that they ultimately control the nation’s purse strings.
“While we have a responsibility to reduce our federal deficit, I am disappointed that many of the reductions and eliminations proposed in the president’s skinny budget are draconian, careless and counterproductive,” Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., the former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement. “We will certainly review this budget proposal, but Congress ultimately has the power of the purse.”
Rogers was one of several Republican lawmakers to dismiss Trump’s budget as a pie-in-the-sky wish list with little hope of surviving negotiations in Congress. Most Republicans gave passing support to Trump’s general goal of increasing defense spending while reducing costs elsewhere in the budget. But none would embrace the specific White House blueprint.
“I’ve never seen a president’s budget proposal not revised substantially,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. “As a member of the budget committee, I’ll carefully scrutinize and assess priorities as the president has with his proposal.”
The upcoming budget clash between Congress and the president has emerged as another obstacle in Trump’s young presidency. Just this week, a federal judge in Hawaii issued a sweeping freeze of Trump’s latest travel order.
The House Republican plan to revise the Affordable Care Act is embattled, as is Trump’s push to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. His tax reform and infrastructure plans have yet to get off the ground.
As he passes the halfway mark of his first 100 days, Trump is under increasing pressure to show that he can make good on his ambitious promises.
Some of Trump’s closest allies said his budget has virtually no chance in Congress, pointing to what they expect to be vociferous opposition from Democrats.
“The left is not going to let him decrease nondefense discretionary (spending) to the extent that he wants to,” Rep. Raúl R. Labrador, R-Idaho, told reporters Thursday. “We’re going to have to find a different way to balance the budget.”
NOT FOLLOWING THE USUAL PROTOCOL
It is not uncommon for Congress to disagree with some priorities in a White House budget. But the blueprint risks putting Republican lawmakers on a collision course with Trump over demands for spending cuts they cannot deliver. Even those fiscal conservatives who do want to cut spending don’t necessarily think slashing major domestic programs is the answer.
In the past, the White House has worked directly with congressional leaders to agree on an overall spending number for the whole government, which is then passed to Appropriations Committee members to divvy up among different departments and agencies.
White House budget director Mick Mulvaney defended the president’s proposal Thursday, acknowledging that the next challenge will be to sell it to lawmakers.
“The message we’re sending to the Hill is, we want more money for the things the president talked about, defense being the top one, national security,” he said. “And we don’t want to add to the budget deficit. If Congress has another way to do that, we’re happy to talk to them about it.”
One reason for the tepid response on the Hill is that lawmakers are mired in high-level negotiations to craft an interim budget before the current one expires April 28. Talks so far have centered on sticking to the two-year bipartisan spending agreement with an overall spending level of $1.07 trillion for 2017.
Republicans expect the spending targets for 2018 to stay about the same, according to several aides familiar with the negotiations.
Trump has proposed spending more next year – upward of $1.15 trillion – by tapping into a separate war fund account as well as other funds.
Many lawmakers also want to increase spending, but doing so would require a bipartisan agreement. Republicans have a slim 52-to-48 majority in the Senate, and any spending deal will require support from Democrats who will not back increased defense spending without corresponding hikes in domestic spending.
Democrats and some Republicans are worried that the $54 billion increase in defense spending will make a powerful dent in the budget of 18 other federal agencies, most prominently the Environmental Protection Agency and the State Department.
Several Republicans expressed concern that Trump’s budget slashes foreign aid by an especially large number.
“As General (Jim) Mattis said prophetically, slashing the diplomatic efforts will cause them to have to buy more ammunition,” Rogers said, referring to the defense secretary. “There is two sides to fighting the problem that we’re in: There is military and then there’s diplomatic. And we can’t afford to dismantle the diplomatic half of that equation.”
Rogers predicted the foreign aid cuts “will not stand,” adding: “This too shall pass.”
Conservatives are also skeptical that Trump’s budget will significantly reduce the deficit. The only way to accomplish that, they argue, is to overhaul entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. Those programs, along with other mandatory spending, help make up nearly two-thirds of all federal spending while Trump’s proposal only targets a third of it.
But Trump promised during the campaign that those programs, including Medicaid, would not be touched.
“I can tell you that I brought up entitlement reform (with Trump) a week or so ago, (and) the pushback was a little stronger than I expected,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the House Freedom Caucus. “It’s going to take a lot more encouragement in terms of actually tackling entitlement reform.”
Republicans also worried that some of Trump’s cuts would undermine critical environmental programs in their states. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said he plans to oppose major cuts to the $300 million Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
“I’m committed to continuing to do everything I can to protect and preserve Lake Erie, including preserving this critical program and its funding,” Portman said in a statement.
The same could be said for Republicans from rural and agriculture-heavy states that stand to lose big under Trump’s proposed cuts. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, raised concerns that farmers could be hit hard at a time when farm income is already down 50 percent compared with four years ago.
Agriculture cuts are a particularly sensitive issue because lawmakers periodically spend months, if not years, hammering out the details of a comprehensive farm bill.
“Agriculture has done more than its fair share,” Conaway said in a statement. “The bottom line is this is the start of a longer, larger process. It is a proposal, not THE budget.”
INCREASE FAILS TO SATISFY DEFENSE HAWKS
One of the greatest pockets of opposition to the Trump blueprint can be found among defense hawks. Defense and national security programs would see the biggest boost in funding under the president’s budget.
But these military-minded members are not satisfied, accusing the president of everything from accounting gimmicks to playing fast and loose with the lives of soldiers in war zones to follow through on his campaign promises.
Republicans have long contended that defense cuts introduced during the last administration damaged the military and hampered its war readiness. Many supported Trump’s call for a dramatic increase in military investment, but they don’t believe this goes far enough.
“The administration’s budget request is not enough to repair that damage and to rebuild the military as the president has discussed,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said in a statement, noting “serious shortcomings” that “will worsen without immediate action.”
“It is morally wrong to task someone with a mission for which they are not fully prepared and fully supported with the best weapons and equipment this nation can provide,” he said.
Trump’s budget puts $603 billion toward defense, but Thornberry and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., are both asking for $640 billion.
They also stress that the $54 billion proposed by Trump is misleading because it is only $19 billion more than what the country spent on defense last year, a rise of just 3 percent.