(Bloomberg) — Republicans in Congress are exploring a way to enact a partial repeal of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) and other parts of their agenda soon after a new Republican president takes the oath of office in 2017.
Several Republicans said they’re discussing the possibility of adopting a budget this year that would let the next president’s agenda — including top goals like slashing PPACA — bypass a Democratic filibuster at the very start of the year. Republicans used a similar move early this year to send a bill repealing much of PPACA and defunding Planned Parenthood to President Barack Obama, who vetoed it.
The strategy would allow Republicans who control the House and Senate to put just such a bill on the desk of a new president if their party wins the White House, without having to grind through months of budget process. To succeed, Republicans need the Senate parliamentarian to let them use rules set by a budget resolution into the next Congress.
“It could be pretty powerful if it works,” said John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Senate Republican. “We haven’t yet concluded one way or the other.”
Such a strategy “might pass muster,” said Bill Hoagland, a vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former Republican congressional aide.
Legislation generally expires at the end of a Congress. Yet rules set by a budget resolution remain in force until a new one is adopted, meaning that a resolution enacted by the current Congress may allow a filibuster-free vote early next year on a new Republican president’s economic agenda, Hoagland said. “I think it might be an open question,” he said in an interview.
“What unified us this last year on the budget was the ability to vote to defund Planned Parenthood and Obamacare with 51 votes,” Cornyn said. “So if we find a similar unifying theme then I think that does provide us with an opportunity and that’s what we’re exploring. We haven’t settled on anything yet.”
This Congress would first have to enact a budget resolution, something that is optional because lawmakers and the White House agreed to a two-year deal that raised spending caps last year.
Instead, Congress could skip the budget process and just move ahead with spending bills, which are a top priority of Republican leaders this year. A number of senators are urging that path because there already is a bipartisan agreement on the overall budget amount. A group of Republican conservatives, though, want to cut spending below that level.
Going forward with a budget this year has another downside for Senate Republicans, because it would require many of their vulnerable incumbents to vote on politically charged amendments.
Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who faces a tough fight for re-election against former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, said he and other Republicans want to see if the parliamentarian will approve the idea of using this year’s budget to bypass a filibuster in the next Congress.
Johnson said he also wants the ability to cancel the filibuster-proof instructions if Democrats take control of the Senate in November. Otherwise, he would rather give up on that strategy — known as reconciliation — and work on the spending bills.
“I’d rather spend time working thoughtfully, prioritizing spending in each one of those spending bills, unless we can have reconciliation and be able to kill it if we need to,” he said. “There’s a lot of strategy involved there.”
Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, a budget director for former President George W. Bush, also said the Senate parliamentarian would have to weigh in on the scenario.
“It’s intriguing,” he said.
Using the reconciliation tool to target the president’s health care law could also help leaders win over conservatives who are balking at voting for the higher spending numbers agreed to last year.
One challenge is that using a reconciliation bill may limit drafters’ ability to change statutory provisions that have no direct relationship with the federal budget.
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama said it would be a “bitter pill” to do a budget that keeps the higher spending from last year’s deal. But he acknowledged that he might vote for a budget if there are other sweeteners attached, like reconciliation.
“But I’m not going to say I won’t,” he said. “There are other things that could sweeten the bitter pill, there’s no doubt about it. There are things that could be done with reconciliation and other issues that might be positive.”
Republicans, who have 54 Senate votes, can only afford to lose three in their party and still be able to pass a budget resolution, which requires a simple majority. That means every vote is critical.
Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, vice chairman of the Republican Conference, said another alternative is to try instead to overhaul the budget process.
That process “has almost never worked the way it was intended to work,” Blunt said. “There has to be a better pathway.”
Either way, Republicans are eager to look past the Obama era. On Thursday, the chairmen of the House and Senate budget committees said they won’t invite Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan to testify on the administration’s budget proposal due Feb. 9 — a major snub.
House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price, a Georgia Republican, predicted in a statement that the president’s budget “will double down on the same failed policies” offered by Obama in the past. “Congress should continue our work on building a budget that balances and that will foster a healthy economy,” he said.
—With assistance from Erik Wasson.
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