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Conservatives Rip Budget Deal -- But Not Ryan

Conservatives Rip Budget Deal -- But Not Ryan

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - December 11, 2013

It was not surprising Wednesday when a group of conservative House Republicans slammed the budget agreement forged by their own Paul Ryan and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray. Indeed, some had registered their disappointment before the details emerged, while others did so after hearing more at the GOP's weekly conference meeting in the Capitol basement.

But despite a willingness to criticize party leaders at other times, particularly when fiscal issues are involved, these members did not direct their ire at Ryan, the Budget Committee chairman whose credentials as a conservative star are on the line in this deal.

“Ryan has done the best job I think you can do given the overwhelming liberal nature of the Senate,” Maryland Rep. Andy Harris told reporters. “[He] has advanced several conservative principles. Are they principles every conservative is going to agree to? No, probably not. But we have to realize the environment in which Mr. Ryan functions, and I think he will be held in that regard.”

Ryan also described the deal as the best possible outcome given Washington’s divided government. “We need to find a way to make divided government work,” the 2012 vice presidential candidate said, echoing a sentiment he expressed when he and Mitt Romney lost last fall.

Harris isn’t the only conservative acknowledging the limits of GOP clout. “Everyone is trying to be optimistic. We don’t control the Senate and the White House,” said Arizona Rep. Matt Salmon. “So a lot of the things we might want, may not be a political reality.”

After two months of negotiations, Ryan and Murray announced a budget deal Tuesday night that set discretionary and defense spending at $1.012 trillion -- an increase from the Budget Control Act mandate of $967 billion, and considered a halfway point between the two sides’ preferred numbers. It would also alleviate $63 billion in across-the-board sequester cuts for two years. That restoration would be financed through the trimming of military pensions and increased pension contributions from federal workers, among other changes. The Congressional Budget Office estimated $85 billion in deficit reduction over a decade.

While it was a small-bore agreement -- there were no changes to, or even avenues toward, entitlement programs; no tax reform; and no tax increases -- it was considered a significant breakthrough given Congress’ long pattern of short-term resolutions, which have left the country perpetually on the edge of a fiscal cliff.

The agreement “gives Congress the power of the purse back,” Ryan told reporters Wednesday after briefing the GOP conference on the plan. He said he felt “very good about where we are with our members,” citing deficit reduction and no tax increases as major selling points of the deal.

But not all his colleagues see it that way. Some conservatives bashed the higher spending levels and deficit reduction that doesn’t occur for several years, and complained that the plan restores sequester cuts without tradeoffs such as entitlement reform. In short, they wanted a continued commitment to sequester numbers that some members said were established during the annual conference meeting last January in Williamsburg, Va.

“I think it’s a terrible plan,” said Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador. “I think it undoes everything we set out in the Williamsburg accord. I think it violates every principle we talked about in the W accord. It also makes promises to the American people that are false. “

Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan echoed those sentiments: “This agreement, while it has some positives … is a marked departure from what we’ve said we’d set out to do, and it’s not going to put us on that path to balance.”

Kansas Rep. Tim Heulskamp remarked sarcastically, “It could be Hillary’s second term before you can achieve what was noted as deficit reduction.”

Salmon admitted that “we’re in a situation where we’re not controlling all three branches of government, and it’s frustrating. But with the cuts we’ve done to spending over the last two years, and watching those go up in smoke is disheartening. It seems as though we have incredible leverage with sequestration, and I’m not sure we used it to its full extent.”

Still, members were reluctant to criticize Ryan for the compromise.

“I don’t think this deal enhances or diminishes Paul Ryan,” Labrador said.

“My question to Paul is not whether he’s a good conservative or not. He is,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney. “My question to Paul would be: What makes you think the Democrats are going to be any different in September than they are right now?”

The South Carolina lawmaker said the deal “does not undermine [Ryan’s] conservative credibility or bona fides.” But, he noted, “I worry that Paul is being overly optimistic about how the Senate intends to act going forward.” 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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