What Republicans’ Doomed Effort to Undo the Budget Deal Is Really About

Midterm talking points, and Kevin McCarthy’s résumé.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks with reporters following the weekly policy luncheons on Capitol Hill on March 20 in Washington.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks with reporters following the weekly policy luncheons on Capitol Hill on March 20 in Washington.

In a brief Fox News interview on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell killed two bills. The first was a measure that the Senate Judiciary Committee plans to consider soon that would make it more difficult for the White House to fire special counsel Robert Mueller. McConnell said that he would never bring that bill to the floor. That effort has received much attention. The second bill McConnell appeared to head off, though, is a more slapstick parable of the party’s election-year messaging, sucking up to the presidency, and talking-point manufacturing that will define the final months of the 115th Congress.

Let’s look at the “rescission” saga.

After the House and Senate comfortably passed their $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill last month, then promptly flew out of town for the two-week Easter recess, President Trump scorned what had been sent for his signature. Though the White House had been in the room negotiating the deal and signed off on the package, the president caught wind of some bad conservative-media coverage of the deal and threatened a veto. He was reluctantly talked out of it, and he signed the bill and its massive boost to military spending that he had promised during the campaign. In bitter remarks, he said he would never sign such a larded-up bill again and called for line-item veto power.

The Supreme Court has ruled that straight line-item vetoes are unconstitutional. Under the Impoundment Control Act of 1974, though, the president does have a mechanism through which to claw back appropriations. The president can submit a package of “rescissions,” or canceled spending, to Congress, which would have 45 workdays to act. If each chamber of Congress affirmatively voted to cancel the spending by a simple majority, it would be rescinded. If not, the money would be released and spent.

The idea, then, would be for the White House to submit a package that rescinds much of the money Republican negotiators conceded to their Democratic counterparts. If that sounds like a jerk move—make a deal, and then try on a party-line vote to take back all of the stuff you offered—that’s because it is.

But one person’s jerk move is another’s coalition builder. The rescission idea allows eager officials in the White House, like Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, to gain favor with the president by translating his anger into a legislative package. It allows House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who decides the floor schedule, to champion it as a means of improving his relationship with the House Freedom Caucus, which holds veto power over his speaker bid, and with Trump, whose vocal endorsement of McCarthy’s bid could be the one thing that brings the Freedom Caucus in line.

North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, the Freedom Caucus chairman, said over the recess that he was “very supportive and extremely pleased with the leadership’s willingness to engage on the issue. Leader McCarthy heard from constituents and worked quickly to address the issue in a meaningful way.” Republicans began looking for $30 billion to $60 billion in domestic spending to target.

Part of the reason this idea built up momentum was that members began discussing it while out of town and before reporters could set about finding a single senator to pop the balloon. Though Senate Republicans have a paper majority of 51–49, it’s really a 50–49 majority, because Arizona Sen. John McCain hasn’t been to the Capitol all year. In other words, party-line legislation can be derailed with one Republican defection. On the first day back from recess, the Washington Post quickly found two Republicans who weren’t hot on the idea: Maine Sen. Susan Collins and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

Both Collins and Murkowski are senior members of the Appropriations Committee, and one would be hard-pressed to find many senior Republican appropriators enthused with the idea. The appropriations committees in both chambers are among the most functional bipartisan entities in Congress. (Spending hawks would complain that they function a little too well.) For the majority to rescind the concessions they gave to the minority, after a deal was struck, would blow up trust within appropriations committees for a long time, while those committees are already supposed to be working on bills for the next fiscal year beginning in October.

McConnell himself is a senior appropriator. He said last week that he was open to discussions about a rescissions package, even if it might not be “achievable.” By yesterday, he appeared to have had enough discussion time.

“[Trump] can’t make an agreement one month and say, ‘OK, we really didn’t mean it,’ and come back the next month,” McConnell told Fox News’ Neil Cavuto. He had little patience for Trump’s concerns about the bill too. “He was involved in the negotiation and signed the bill.”

So that’s that.

This doesn’t mean the White House won’t stop drawing up a rescission package, just that it will die an election-year death. Mulvaney is expected to submit something soon, and then McCarthy can set up a vote for it. It could—could—pass the House, but either it fails there or is dead on arrival in the Senate. McCarthy collects his talking point for his speakership bid, and rank-and-file House Republicans collect their talking point for the campaign trail when confronted by the base about overspending. As with the failed balanced budget amendment vote last week, the real legislating is done—no clawbacks!—and the season of talking-point collection is in peak bloom.