On Monday afternoon, House and Senate members gathered on Capitol Hill to hash out their differences on a budget blueprint for the next decade. But there was little debate over specific discrepancies between the House and Senate plans.
Instead, the two-hour hearing was devoted to speeches by conference committee members rehashing familiar partisan tropes.
“Repealing the president's healthcare law would pave the way to starting over on patient-centered healthcare reform, where patients and families and doctors are making medical decisions, not Washington, D.C.,” said Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), chair of the House Budget Committee.
“America is the only major country on earth that doesn't guarantee healthcare to all of its people,” countered Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee. “Despite the modest gains of the Affordable Care Act, 35 million Americans continue to have no health insurance.”
The lack of detailed spending discussions is indicative of the fact that the budget process is a largely symbolic exercise. Congressional Republicans plan to pass a budget that abolishes the Affordable Care Act and eliminates deficit spending within a decade.
House and Senate Republicans differ on some significant details when it comes to healthcare policy. Most notably, the House wants to move Medicare to a “premium support” model starting in 2024, whereby beneficiaries would receive subsidies to purchase coverage through an exchange. The Senate budget blueprint simply calls for reducing Medicare spending by $423 billion over a decade, the same level as in the president's budget, but provides no details.
But whatever the negotiators settle on, those proposals aren't going to be enacted anytime soon. That's because they're anathema to President Barack Obama and most Democrats, and Republicans don't have anywhere close to the majorities needed to override vetoes.
“Frankly, a budget resolution, even a joint resolution, doesn't really bind anybody to do anything,” said Joe Antos, a health policy expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Christopher Condeluci, a former top GOP Senate Finance staffer, said the point is to show the public that the GOP majorities aren't dysfunctional. “The Republicans can indicate to the American public that they came to Congress to get things done, unlike what has occurred over the past however many years when a budget has never been reported out,” Condelucci said.
Once Republicans settle on a budget resolution, it will be up to committees to fill in the fine print. The real discussion about 2016 appropriations will occur as the close of the fiscal year approaches at the end of September and the possibility of another government shutdown begins to loom.