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Politics & Government

Republicans Get Their Turn To Present Budget Plans

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This is the season when Congress is supposed to do what you'd expect of any prudent person with a few trillion dollars to spend. It's the season for lawmakers to agree on a budget for this year and for coming years. President Obama has offered his plan. And this week, Republicans in Congress respond. Now, this is very much an inside political game. But there is all that money at stake, so we're going to talk it through with David Wessel, director of the Hutchins Center at the Brookings Institution. He's also a contributing correspondent to the Wall Street Journal. David, good morning.

DAVID WESSEL, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Remind us what the budget resolution does, assuming lawmakers actually agree on one.

WESSEL: Budget resolutions were invented back in 1974 when Congress rewrote the rules of budgeting to try and take back some of the power from the Nixon White House. But they're outlines. They set targets for spending bills. They're not binding. The president doesn't get a choice of signing and vetoing. And they're often little more than statements of intent by the majority party in Congress.

Now, in recent years, the House, the Republicans and the Senate controlled by Democrats have been unable to agree on a single budget as the law tells them they're supposed to. But this year is different because Republicans control both chambers of Congress. Or at least, they have a majority there. And although they're largely symbolic, they can matter. They do create important procedural pathways that can make action easier later in the year. And when government is divided as they are now, they're just a wonderful way to see the contrast between Republican priorities and Democratic priorities.

INSKEEP: And assuming Republicans actually follow through and get this done - it's something that they complained Democrats could never do. Now they're doing it. What differences are we likely to see between Republicans and the White House?

WESSEL: Well, the House Budget Committee gave us a little preview yesterday. They put out a video without any facts or figures. And what you can see is the president wants to raise some taxes. Republicans say they won't do that. His budget doesn't come close to balance in the next 10 years. Republicans insist they want to balance the budget over the next 10 years although independent analysts say that the only way they can achieve that and stick to their no tax stance is to resort to gimmickry.

We're going to see radical changes to Medicare and programs to the poor in the House budget, as we've seen before. And once the Republicans are going to use the budget to try and repeal Obamacare, as they've been doing repeatedly. And the president's been making the case for more spending, particularly on infrastructure and education. Republicans show no interest in biting at that.

INSKEEP: Well, now you're getting to the sense of the political dangers here when you talk about changing Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, infrastructure spending. Do Republicans agree on how to proceed?

WESSEL: They don't, Steve. House Republicans are far more willing to take symbolic votes to reshape these big benefit programs, even though they're not going to get through to the president. And a big sticking point this year is whether to lift the caps that the president and Congress wrote into law that limit annually appropriated spending - that is, everything outside of benefits.

The president wants to lift the caps on both defense and domestic spending. Republicans in the House are balking at that although they found a back doorway to increase defense spending. And influential Republican senators - McCain, Graham - insist that the caps on defense spending are so low that they're pressing that they're endangering national security. So they're pressing to raise them explicitly.

INSKEEP: Well, how does all this end?

WESSEL: Well, nobody knows for sure. Big changes in taxes and benefit programs are off the table unless the Supreme Court makes some ruling unfavorable to Obamacare that forces the issue.

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah.

WESSEL: So nearly all the attention will be on these annually appropriated spending. One possibility is that this will lead to some negotiation when the bills - when the resolutions go to House and Senate budget. That happened a couple years ago. But another, and perhaps more likely, scenario is that they'll - Republicans will pass spending bills. The president will veto them. We'll have another end-of-the-year shut-the-government confrontation in September.

INSKEEP: That sounds so exciting, David Wessel (laughter).

WESSEL: Looking forward to it.

INSKEEP: He's director of the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy at the Brookings Institution. He also writes for the Wall Street Journal. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.