The provocative budget President Donald Trump offers today presents him with a daunting new challenge: persuading not just reluctant Republicans, but also hostile Democrats.
His odds of prevailing are bleak.
The principal initiative of what aides call an “America First” spending plan is boosting defense outlays by $54 billion while cutting the same amount from non-defense programs. To achieve that goal, Budget Director Mick Mulvaney says the budget will request, for example, cuts of 28 percent in State Department spending and roughly 25 percent in the Environmental Protection Agency.
“This is a hard-power budget, it is not a soft power budget,” Mulvaney explained at a briefing for reporters. The goal of the spending blueprint, which the administration plans to release at 7 a.m., is to impose Trump’s priorities without increasing the fiscal 2018 deficit and the national debt.
The president’s problem is that a shift in priorities of that magnitude requires legislation that alters spending caps that Congressional Republicans and Democrats agreed to during President Barack Obama’s second term. That legislation is subject to filibuster. Amassing the 60 votes needed to overcome that hurdle requires acquiescence by at least eight Senate Democrats — and more if some Republican senators refuse to go along.
Republican resistance to Trump’s request is highly likely. In 2013, after the so-called “sequester” cuts took effect, the Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee called for those caps to be lifted because a spending bill was too austere to attract sufficient Republican support.
The Senate’s third-ranking Republican, John Thune, told me last fall “we’ve done as much as we can” to cut domestic spending, and that Congress now needs to turn toward curbing the massive entitlement programs of Social Security and Medicare. But President Trump has promised not to touch those programs, and Budget Director Mulvaney said the administration will keep that promise.
As a result, the president’s budget submission represents a fresh volley in the ongoing political argument on the size and role of government. The proposed EPA cuts, Mulvaney said, reflect the president’s views on climate change, which Obama considered a threat to the planet but which Trump has previously labeled a hoax. The cuts in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, he added, reflect the president’s belief that many anti-poverty programs have failed to produce results.
The administration will propose beginning to wind down federal support for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Separate from its 2018 budget, the administration will also request an additional $30 billion for defense spending in fiscal 2017, with $1.5 billion allocated for Trump’s planned “great wall” along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Key Republicans such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have already said that deep cuts to the State Department, for example, will be rejected by Congress. Democrats and their outside allies will oppose cuts in social programs such as housing even more fiercely, arguing that those harmed will include many of the “forgotten Americans” Trump vowed in his campaign to protect.
“The idea that you can pull all this money out and have no adverse effects doesn’t pass the laugh test,” said Robert Greenstein, who directs the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
One potential outcome is for Congressional Democrats to agree to higher defense spending – which many of them support — but to insist that domestic spending increase at the same time. That’s how Congress broke a logjam over the sequester under President Obama.
Obama’s successor, already enmeshed in a battle over health care, is just now entering his own budget wars.