Quietly, a fight has bubbled up in the ranks of House Republicans, which could derail the centerpiece of President Donald Trump's congressional agenda.
The battle is really about tax reform, but its stage is the fiscal year 2018 budget resolution, scheduled for a committee vote this week.
Behind it all is a clash between Republican leadership and a group of archconservatives who see this moment — months before any major tax bill is likely to come before the full House — as their best chance to force deep cuts to both tax rates and social welfare spending.
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Republicans are unified in their goal to cut taxes, but they are locked in an intraparty struggle of how deeply to cut rates — and whether to offset those cuts at all with increased taxation elsewhere. GOP leaders have proposed a tax reform blueprint that would include such an increase to offset lost revenue from rate cuts and keep the budget deficit from growing.
The conservative members of the House Freedom Caucus say that proposal is dead on arrival, and they are pushing House Speaker Paul Ryan to adopt an alternative: one that relies on draconian welfare spending cuts and incredibly optimistic economic growth projections in order to avoid swelling the deficit. Ryan has resisted their efforts, particularly their proposed spending cuts.
Rather than stage that fight this fall, when the White House and conservative leaders will undoubtedly ramp up the pressure to pass a tax bill, the Freedom Caucus members have chosen to make their tax stand over the budget resolution — a nonbinding government spending guideline that both chambers have to pass if they want to circumvent the threat of a Democratic filibuster in the Senate on tax reform.
GOP leaders are refusing to back down from a resolution that Freedom Caucus members warn would force a vote on a smaller batch of tax and spending cuts in the fall. But without the Freedom Caucus on board, the resolution will fail a floor vote — which is why caucus members have identified the budget resolution as their best leverage to get what they want on tax reform, Freedom Caucus member Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC) said.
And so the budget resolution has become a proxy war, while President Trump's attention is still on health care in the Senate.
It is the same game of chicken, with the same key players that nearly killed the House health care bill in March. If neither faction blinks, Republicans, in control of the House, Senate, and White House will be stuck in a stalemate: No budget resolution means no tax reform.
For now, at least, Freedom Caucus members are saying they're willing to take that chance.