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Is the Freedom Caucus still a formidable foe in 2016?

Since the Republicans retook control of the House following the 2010 elections, conservatives in the chamber have repeatedly used various components of the budget process, with their “must pass” nature, to achieve various legislative goals. Members attempted to use the debt ceiling as leverage to extract large spending cuts in 2011, 2013, and 2014. Annual threats of government shutdowns, moreover, have been part of efforts to achieve other, non-budgetary goals, like a repeal of the Affordable Care Act in 2013, an end to President Obama’s executive actions on immigration in 2014, and an elimination of federal funds for Planned Parenthood last fall.

In the shadow of the presidential race, the past several weeks have brought a repeat performance of this budgetary conflict, this time led by the House Freedom Caucus (HFC) on one side and the House Republican leadership on the other. At its heart is a component of then-Speaker John Boehner (R-OH)’s “barn cleaning” budget deal that relaxes the spending caps put in place by the 2011 Budget Control Act. Under the agreement from October, Congress is allowed to spend roughly $30 billion more than originally specified under the BCA. The HFC has called for a budget resolution that disregards that increase or, absent that, a set of additional spending cuts or rules changes passed in tandem. Because approving the budget resolution has, in recent years, become a straight party-line vote, if HFC members follow through on their pledge to oppose a resolution unless their demands are met, it would likely fail on the floor.

Why is the Freedom Caucus picking this budget fight? After all, the budget resolution is non-binding and is not sent to the president for his signature; Congress also has access to other legislative tools to accomplish some of the budget resolution’s functions if it fails to complete work on one. Given what the rest of the year is likely to bring, however, the HFC is simply unlikely to get another chance to prove it is still relevant in the era of the Paul Ryan speakership. Given the looming presidential and congressional elections, Congress is unlikely to do more than fulfill its most basic budgetary responsibilities this year. Within that process, moreover, the HFC’s options for influence are somewhat limited. Let’s consider four potential levers in turn:

1. Debt ceiling

Thanks to last October’s budget deal, Congress does not need to address the debt ceiling again until March 2017. Thus, House conservatives cannot threaten to withhold their support for a vote to increase it in exchange for other policy concessions.

2. Individual appropriations bills

Congress has struggled to enact individual spending measures in recent years, and the HFC has joined Speaker Ryan (R-OH) in calling for “regular order” in the appropriations process, completing all 12 bills separately. Unlike with the budget resolution, however, separate appropriations bills can and do still attract a small-to-medium-sized handful of Democratic votes, which can be used to compensate for any conservative Republican defections. Take, for example, last year’s spending bill for the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development. Heritage Action announced the day before the vote that it was encouraging members to vote “no”, and 31 Republicans, including nine Freedom Caucus members, voted against the bill. Republican leaders were able to attract three Democratic votes, however, ensuring that the bill narrowly cleared the chamber, 216-210. Should the House take up individual appropriations measures, they will reflect conservatives’ policy preferences on the whole, but getting them across the finish line would not necessarily require their uniform support.

3. An omnibus appropriations measure

When Congress fails to pass separate appropriations bills, one alternate path to keeping the government open is to roll several (or all) of them together into a single, massive spending measure. House Republican leaders understand that any such bill that can pass the Senate at present will be opposed by a sizable number of conservative House members, regardless of decisions made on the margins to include or exclude certain specific provisions. The December 2015 omnibus measure, for example, was supported by roughly 60 percent of the House Republican conference, including only three Freedom Caucus members. Democrats, meanwhile, secured a number of victories on specific “policy riders” in exchange for their support of the package. There’s no reason to believe that a 2016 omnibus experience would be any different.

4. A continuing resolution

If Congress reaches September without having enacted either individual spending bills or an omnibus measure, it has another fallback option: a continuing resolution (CR), which avoids a government shutdown by keeping programs running at largely-unchanged levels. Indeed, in both2008 and 2012, legislators opted to pass CRs in September that kept federal programs funded into March of the following year, leaving it to the next Congress to finish the appropriations job. It is possible that House conservatives could attempt to force a shutdown by refusing to support a CR, and House Budget Committee member Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ) has called for potentially using a CR to enact the spending cuts conservative Republicans are demanding. At the same time, congressional leaders would likely be desperate to avoid a shutdown just weeks before an election, and the last two election-year CRs passed the House with large, bipartisan majorities. Any pre-election CR effort this year would likely be structured to gain similar levels of broad support.

Given this landscape, for the HFC and their conservative allies, obstructing the budget resolution represents their best leverage for creating opportunities to consider some of their preferred policies on the floor of the House this year. What’s more, it allows them a chance to demonstrate their continued relevance under a new Speaker of the House and in advance of a new president in 2017.

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