Senior House Republicans vote Tuesday night to replace outgoing House Budget Chairman Diane Black, who’s stepping down to run for Tennessee governor.
Most have their money on Rep. Steve Womack.
Several top Republican lawmakers and aides predicted Monday that the Arkansas Republican, a senior member of the budget panel, would take charge of the committee that oversees topline government spending numbers. Womack enjoys close relationships with GOP leaders, has raised millions of dollars for the GOP’s campaign arm and is gung-ho for reducing mandatory spending — a belief that will win him support with the committee’s fiscal hawks.
But first, the 60-year-old, fourth-term lawmaker will have to beat fellow budget members Rob Woodall of Georgia and Bill Johnson of Ohio to clinch the gavel. Both men have been campaigning for the post promising to bring “stability” to a committee that will soon see its third different chairman in the past year.
That’s a jab at Womack, who could exit the post as soon as next year for a coveted subcommittee chairmanship on the more powerful House Appropriations Committee.
"We will have had three chairmen in 12 months. That's a tough cycle," Woodall said in an interview Monday. "I want to provide some long-term leadership. So I'm all in."
Whoever wins, the job of budget chairman won’t be an easy one. President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have panned the prospects of tackling entitlement reform or a partisan welfare overhaul in 2018. They’ve also all but ruled out the idea of using budget reconciliation — the fast-tracking tool that lets Republicans avoid a Senate filibuster — to advance partisan agenda items in an election year.
That’s unlikely to sit well with the more conservative House GOP conference, which is eager to cut spending in any way possible.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said there’s no question that the Senate will be one of the biggest frustrations for the incoming House GOP budget chairman this year — particularly given recent tensions between House and Senate Republicans.
“The Senate tries to skip out on doing budgets every election year,” Cole said, adding that the Senate’s narrow majority made it difficult to pass a budget even when it meant guaranteeing a filibuster-proof tax overhaul this year.
Womack said he would hold out hope for a unified GOP budget even if there was no must-pass policy goal — like tax reform — driving all types of Republicans to the table. But he also vowed to ensure the budget panel is on the same page as House GOP leadership and acknowledged election-year dynamics could make the post difficult.
“That’s a messy spot to kind of volunteer yourself for,” Womack said of the budget chairmanship. “But as I told my dad this morning, I know it’s a tough job and I know it’s going to be unpleasant, and my life might be miserable for awhile. But if I’m going to be up here … I’m willing to take it. Somebody’s got to do this work, and I’m willing to do it.”
Technically, Woodall, who joined the committee his first day in Congress in 2011, outranks his two competitors and would be the next in line for the gavel. He plans to pitch the steering committee on several changes to the budget panel that he’d make as chairman, including moving to a biennial budgeting and tweaking Congress' finances to align with the calendar year instead of the fiscal year.
Woodall believes Democrats' hopes of reclaiming the House this year could actually work in the GOP's favor when it comes to budget reforms.
"We have a real opportunity to do some hard things in a bipartisan way that would not be possible if folks didn't believe they had a shot of using those tools for their own benefits," Woodall said, joking, "Folks can call me a Pollyanna if they want."
Woodall also wants to use the panels’ budget-writing authorities to start conversations on tough issues that otherwise get little attention, like Social Security Disability Insurance or the Highway Trust Fund. He believes that if nothing else, those talks could spur actual work by the House's other committees.
Johnson, who first joined the budget panel in 2016, touts perhaps the widest-ranging relationships in the House: He’s a member of the GOP whip team, the conservative Republican Study Committee, the moderate Tuesday Group and the bipartisan group No Labels.
Johnson, who keeps a low profile, was also an original Trump supporters, making him one of a small group of House Republicans.
“I have a good working relationship across our conference, and that’s going to be required,” said Johnson, a 26-year Air Force veteran.
He also argues he has been doing hard budgeting his whole life, growing up on a mule farm, picking cotton with no indoor plumbing until he was 13.
Womack, a former mayor who spent 30 years in the Army National Guard, is considered the front-runner because of his leadership experience. He sits on the deputy whip team and often exceeds dues to the National Republican Congressional Committee — something the House Republican Steering Committee takes into account when choosing chairmen.
In March, Womack raised more than $30 million for the NRCC by organizing the dinner with President Donald Trump. He’s also up for an Appropriations subcommittee gavel next Congress and sits on the steering committee, giving him a leg-up with his whipping effort.
Like many Republicans on the budget panel, Womack has admired Black’s work on the 2017 budget because it tackled mandatory spending.
“One thing you can say with absolute certainty is that everybody recognizes that the issues facing the country from a fiscal position have little to do with discretionary spending and mostly to do with the other side of the spending ledger, mandatory, and we’re going to see more and more costs associated with entitlements in this country,” he said in a Monday interview. "And if you can’t at least begin to have that conversation about reforms in those areas, we continue to pile incredible deficits and debt onto future generations."