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The Coming Budget Battle Could Shut Down the Government

Donald Trump is about to enter a contentious fight over his first budget proposal, and no one really knows how it will go.

The past few days of political news have been the sort of high drama that makes for compelling fiction and mortifying reality. Attorney General Jeff Sessions's previously undisclosed meeting with a Russian ambassador resulted in 48 hours of micro-scandal, while at the same time journalists and politicians physically searched for a Republican healthcare plan hidden in a basement—just another week in Donald Trump's DC, basically. Meanwhile, the administration is quietly working toward a vital step in Trump's presidency: his first budget process, which saw a sort of soft launch on Monday. Unsurprisingly, given what we've seen so far, that process is shaping up to be a real shit-show.

Here's how the budget process is supposed to go: By the start of February, the president delivers a proposal chock full of policy and economic priorities, for review by the Congressional Budget Office and various relevant committees. By April, Congress should be developing, based on a review of that proposal and its own calculations, a concurrent resolution on the budget. That resolution, which needs no presidential approval, informs the crafting and passage, through May and June, of a dozen bills actually allocating the cash to run the federal government for the next fiscal year, which begins on October 1. Failure to complete this process triggers a standoff and potentially a federal shutdown, until a deal can be brokered on a budget or a continuing resolution, which basically allows the state to run at existing levels.

It's not uncommon these days for new administrations to miss these deadlines—Obama was a full 94 days late with his first budget proposal in 2009. So it was normal for the Trump administration to issue only some general guidance points as an opening salvo this week. But those points were simultaneously banal and extreme. Trump plans to boost military spending by $54 billion while remaining committed to maintaining entitlements like Social Security and Medicare and cutting taxes and doing some kind of infrastructure deal. The only way to make that math remotely work for even one element of that plan, the defense boost, is to make enormous cuts to the State Department, foreign aid (a tiny fraction of the budget), the EPA, and other aspects of government.

Trump's general reasoning, as he indicated in a FOX News interview Tuesday, is that he expects his budget to be balanced by increased tax revenues created by an economic expansion—the equivalent of buying a house you can't afford and telling yourself you'll get a better job to pay for it.

What little is known of Trump's budget has been attacked from all sides. Ideologues in the GOP, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, are wedded to tackling entitlement spending. Deficit hawk conservatives are wary of the risks that Trump's spending spree won't actually balance out with revenues. Defense hawks don't think Trump wants to raise military spending enough. And nearly everyone is concerned about the depth of the cuts his team has floated to non-military programs.

"When you have conservative Republicans like [Idaho congressman] Mike Simpson saying that's a budget that can't get through because there are a lot of programs [on the chopping block] that we like," explains Joshua Huder, a legislative affairs expert at Georgetown University, "then you know you're in pretty hot water."

Molly Reynolds, congressional expert at the Brookings Institute, says that the Democrats will also be a hurdle to passing the budget, given their power to filibuster funding bills or provisions to remove caps on defense spending. "Democrats have been unified for the past several years behind the position that the defense and non-defense sides of the discretionary budget have to be treated equally. If they stick to that position, it makes it very hard to adopt appropriations bills" like those Trump wants.

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Trump will likely send a more fleshed-out proposal to Congress in March, and the full budget won't drop until May. There could be a lot of wheeling and dealing between now and then, although it will mostly happen out of sight. "Because Trump is a dealmaker," says Steve Bell, a former staff director of the Senate Budget Committee and current advisor at the Bipartisan Policy Center, "I really and truly believe his opening bid is an opening bid."

Even before it gets bogged down in this budget, Congress will have to deal with the dregs of the 2017 budget, which it never got around to finishing. (The government is running on a continuing resolution until April 28.) Congress can't just punt this off and focus on 2018 because the repeal of the Affordable Care Act is now tied up with the 2017 budget (via a reconciliation process that was meant to make the task easy). Plus there's likely to be a supplemental defense spending request and attempts to address an emerging debt-ceiling crisis on top of everything else—all of which could inspire major political battles.

Bell thinks a standoff this spring is almost inevitable—and a shutdown, like the one in 2013, is possible. Reynolds says that unresolved battles over things like the ACA could stall not just this year's budget, but progress on addressing 2018's already-delayed budget process as well.

Congressional leaders want to get this budget shit done. Ryan reportedly plans to work through the process this summer. Maya MacGuineas, of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, says Republicans need to show they can govern well and efficiently now that they control nearly every lever of power. Other experts concur. "It's critical that they get a budget done," stresses Huder, "because it's tied to everything they have wanted to do for… ten years, since the last time they had this kind of majority."

But Republicans may soon find themselves trapped between a variety of rocks and hard places. Different factions in the party may have irreconcilable problems with Trump's ultimate proposal (for much the same reasons as noted above), and leadership will almost certainly have to compromise with Democrats to get something functional through Congress. But each concession to the Democrats risks alienating even more Republicans. "My God," says Huder of the endless negotiations likely to ensue in this contentious process, "it will suck out the oxygen of everything."

We don't know enough about the dynamics of this impending clusterfuck to predict how it will shake out. Trump could back down on military spending or severe cuts or both, then blame Democrats and congressional inefficiency for stopping him. If Congress has to shape a bill largely unilaterally and over Trump's objections, it may even have to override Trump's veto to get a budget done. Or, as Bell suggests, things could degrade until there's a government shutdown—or, best case, there's another continuing resolution.

Granted, without an actual budget proposal, this is all speculation. But this week's reactions to Trump's budget hints point toward a long, draining, contentious process likely to further stymie the regime's showy but so far ineffectual agenda. At worst, this will lead to a governmental crisis; at best, a pissed-off president.   

Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.