By Alexander Bolton and Scott Wong - 05-23-17 20:55 PM EDT
Republican leaders in Congress say they will go their own way on spending and largely ignore the budget President Trump sent to Congress on Tuesday, underlining a divide between the White House and his congressional allies on spending issues.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) downplayed the significance of setting Trump's budget aside as he told reporters that he will soon begin negotiations with Democrats on the top-line numbers for discretionary spending bills.
Asked about Trump's budget, McConnell said it's traditional for Congress to discard much of a president's blueprint.
"We'll be taking into account what the president is recommending, but it will not be determinative in every respect," he said. "I didn't engage in a ringing endorsement of President [George W.] Bush's budgets either."
Others in the Senate GOP conference immediately distanced themselves from Trump's budget.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said the plan cuts "too close to the bone," while Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) called it "anti-Nevada," citing cuts to "important public lands programs."
Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has previously warned that not much more can be cut from discretionary spending accounts, which cover popular programs such as medical research at the National Institutes of Health.
Trump's proposed cuts to Medicaid were making some Republicans nervous.
The fiscal 2018 budget assumes that the House GOP's legislation to repeal and replace ObamaCare will become law, which would cut Medicaid by $839 billion. Trump's budget then proposes an additional $610 billion in cuts.
"I have a major problem with that," said Capito, who has voiced her concerns about steep Medicaid cuts to the 13-member working group that McConnell has convened to negotiate the Senate healthcare reform bill.
Democrats pounced on Trump's plan as "brutal" and "cruel" and predicted that spending cuts targeting programs helping poor and vulnerable families would boomerang on Trump and the GOP.
"The irony of the Trump budget is that it hurts many of the people who supported him most in the campaign. That's the great irony of the budget. When you add it all up, the Trump budget is a comic book villain-bad budget," said Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.).
He pledged that Democrats would make the Medicaid cuts an issue in next year's midterms.
Generic ballots show Democrats with an advantage over Republicans in those elections. Democrats hope that Trump will be an anvil on his party next year given his low approval rating and swirling controversies involving his firing of FBI Director James Comey, who was investigating links between Russia's meddling in last year's presidential election and Trump's campaign.
Republicans have grown tired of questions about those controversies even as the Senate Intelligence Committee's own probe has drawn it closer to conflict with the administration. The panel on Tuesday said it would be filing more subpoenas for information from former national security adviser Michael Flynn, whom Trump fired earlier this year.
Democrats were largely thought to have won the battle last month over a short-term spending measure. They were helped by division on the GOP side.
Schumer told reporters Tuesday afternoon that talks with GOP leaders on the top-line discretionary spending numbers had not yet begun, but voiced confidence.
"We'll be laying out our principles that we will adhere to. We had great success in meeting those principles in the 2017 budget, and I suspect we'll have great success in the 2018 budget," he said.
Overall, Republicans did say they hoped Trump's push for more defense spending could create momentum for their own budget process.
Trump's budget would increase defense spending by $54 billion next year, shifting money from nondefense discretionary programs, which would be slashed.
"We must never forget, if the country is not secure, all other considerations become moot," said Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
Trump would increase funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs by 6 percent.
"We always want to see more, but we were very pleased with the increase," said Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.), vice chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee.
Defense hawks, however, were disappointed by what they viewed as a paltry hike for the military.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called Trump's budget "dead on arrival" and said it was inadequate to the challenges faced by the nation.
He and other Republicans also said they could not accept the budget leaving in place spending ceilings set by the 2011 Budget Control Act.
While the Medicaid cuts made some Republicans nervous, Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said Trump was right to tackle a major mandatory-spending program in his budget.
Trump's call to implement work requirements for Medicaid beneficiaries has broad support from Republicans in both chambers. Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), a senior House appropriator, said proposed work requirements for Medicaid recipients would be backed by a wide swath of House GOP members.
Aderholt said he's now seeking White House support for mandatory drug testing of Medicaid recipients. "I think they would be supportive once we get a chance to explain it to them," he told The Hill.
Another possible point of contention is Trump's call for funding a wall on the Mexican border.
Trump's budget includes $2.6 billion for improved border security and $1.6 billion for construction of a wall.
Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (Texas) said he viewed the call for the wall as more of a metaphor for improved security than a literal plan to build a 1,900-mile structure.
"This president has made a commitment to securing the border. It is a matter of political will. He has it, President Obama did not, and we look forward to working with him to keep that promise and secure the border once and for all," he told reporters after the weekly GOP luncheon.
Rep. John Carter (R-Texas), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee overseeing homeland security issues, said he expects the House GOP's budget to include money for Trump's wall, though he declined to give a specific number.
"It may be what the president requests," Carter said of the House's border-wall figure.
Democrats are likely to seek to block any funding for a wall, which could lead to a test of GOP unity on the question.
- Niv Elis contributed.