By Jake Sherman, John Bresnahan and Seung Min Kim
House Republicans have a feeling they might not screw this one up.
After weeks of stumbling through one embarrassing crisis after another, GOP leadership and the rank and file -- for once -- seem surefooted about their strategy to pass a 2016 budget resolution and fix a Medicare physician formula that's long bedeviled Congress.
And, 100 days into the new Congress, despite all the drama up to this point, top Republican leaders feel pretty good about their future. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) feel that wins on two big-ticket items put them on solid footing as they move toward a summer filled with legislative battles on the debt limit, highway money and government spending.
"The goal was to get a budget done before we depart" for the Easter recess, McCarthy told POLITICO in an interview Tuesday. "That was our goal in the first 100 days, and we're getting that done. We wanted to start eliminating [fiscal] cliffs. Getting [the Sustainable Growth Rate] done is big. Seventeen times it's just been pushed forward. Getting entitlement reform -- this is something we've been striving for for 20 years."
Of course, it's hard to ignore how difficult the first couple of months of this Congress have been. Lawmakers have openly wondered about Boehner's future, and 25 Republicans voted against him as speaker in January, a stunning public repudiation. Meanwhile, Scalise's prowess as a whip has been questioned by his colleagues.
But as they get ready to leave for a two-week break, House Republicans are poised to do it on a high note.
House leadership will use a complicated parliamentary maneuver to get them over the finish line -- and there's always a chance it could backfire. It's called "Queen of the Hill," and it will allow the House to vote on two different budgets. Whichever budget gets the most votes will be the one considered passed by the House.
The first, dubbed "Price 1" for Budget Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.), is what the Budget panel approved last week.
The second, unsurprisingly called "Price 2," would increase defense spending by an additional $20 billion.
Leadership hopes fiscal conservatives will hold their nose and vote for the increased defense spending. After all, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the Republican who chairs the House Freedom Caucus, dreamed up the strategy and nailed it down during conference calls with GOP leadership. In a brief interview, Jordan said "we wanted to be able to vote on multiple budgets."
Scalise's whip team is confident it can get the bill over the finish line, but there's some agitation on the margins. The House will vote on Wednesday.
"Some of us of are defense guys, some of us are budget guys, and some of us are both. I'm both," said Republican Study Committee Chairman Bill Flores of Texas. "I think they worked up a decent solution, but it does show the challenges we have."
Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.), a conservative who serves on both the Rules and Budget committees, said he might not vote for the second Price budget.
"This is as open and creative a solution as we were going to find," Woodall said in an interview. "It's better than rolling the Budget Committee, it's better than rolling the Rules Committee and doing a self-executing amendment. Of all the bad choices we had to try to work this thing out, this was the best."
The overlap of budget and defense hawks is working in leadership's favor. For example, Reps. Trent Franks of Arizona, Doug Lamborn of Colorado and Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma sent a letter to their colleagues urging them to support the modified budget with the added defense money, and reject the other proposal.
"I believe that this president has diminished our national security apparatus in a profound and dangerous way, and there are few opportunities for us to make a clear, unequivocal stand for defense," Franks said. "This represents at least a moderate opportunity it make that clear in this Congress."
Franks said critics of the modified Price budget are "wrong to have national defense and fiscal sanity juxtaposed against one another. That's like asking what wing of an airplane is more important."
Other lawmakers just want to get into a budget reconciliation process with the Senate. The powerful parliamentary maneuver, which requires both chambers to adopt the same budget, could be used to send an Obamacare repeal bill to President Barack Obama's desk.
"The thing that's appealed to me more than anything is how important it is to get to reconciliation," Arizona Rep. Matt Salmon said. "I campaigned, when I came back here [to Congress], with my heart and soul to get rid of Obamacare and it's the one shot we got to get something on his desk."
A relatively drama-free budget process in the House could spur momentum for the same in the Senate, where defense hawks irked about insufficient Pentagon funding in the original budget seemed to be mollified -- for now.
In the Republican-led Senate, GOP leaders are dealing with four members who are mulling presidential bids and likely to try to leave their own imprints on the fiscal blueprint.
One of those 2016 hopefuls, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) sits on the Senate Budget Committee. He secured the panel's approval of additional war spending in the Overseas Contingency Operations account to win support among defense hawks. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who raised concerns that defense was shortchanged in the original Senate GOP plan, said "we feel a little better" after the Graham-sponsored boost but declined to say whether he would vote for it.
"My hope is we can fully fund it to the numbers that former Secretary Gates proposed and there might be an effort on our part to do that here in the next few days," said Rubio, who proposed an amendment with Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) to further bolster defense spending. Though he said using the war contingency funds to prop up the Pentagon was not ideal, Rubio added: "It's certainly better than no increase at all."
The other two GOP presidential contenders in the Senate -- Rand Paul of Kentucky, who is almost certain to run, and Ted Cruz of Texas, who made his bid official this week -- are viewed as potential "no" votes because they have called for deeper spending cuts in previous budget battles.
Senate Republican leaders said they feel they have resolved the most nettlesome flashpoint -- defense spending -- at the Budget Committee, although a procedural hurdle written into the GOP blueprint would make it difficult for the Pentagon to ever get that extra money.
"I think we're feeling pretty good," South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the third-ranking Senate Republican, said when asked whether leadership had the votes to pass the budget. The OCO amendment, Thune added, gave defense hawks "comfort" that the demands for military funding would be addressed in the budget.
The budget votes began in earnest on Tuesday, when the Senate voted down a Democratic proposal that would pay for about $478 billion of infrastructure improvements over the next six years by closing corporate tax loopholes. The measure was defeated 52 to 45.
Later Tuesday, Senate Republicans forced a vote on President Barack Obama's fiscal 2016 budget -- a political vote routinely pushed by the GOP during budget fights. It was overwhelmingly rejected, 1-98.
In the House, there will also be Wednesday votes on alternative budgets from Democratic leadership, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the conservative Republican Study Committee.
The main budget action in the Senate will begin Thursday with the so-called vote-a-rama, where senators will vote for hours on amendments on an array of politically charged issues.
Yet even if the House and Senate approve their budgets this week, the will still have to negotiate a bicameral plan that can clear both chambers, and that's not going to be easy.
In addition, OCO may be exempt from the spending limits under the Budget Control Act, but only if Obama agrees with the designation. Thus Republicans can use OCO to get around the caps on paper, but it is only real if president agrees. Getting the defense money in reality -- without a cap increase -- is still a political gamble. And no increase in spending caps will be possible without Obama and the Democrats.