Majority Leader Mitch McConnell welcomed new ranks to his conference last year, grown with the help of a crowd of former governors, legislators, and businessmen who won critical Senate elections.
Now most of those freshmen are going their own way, saying they will vote against a bipartisan deal endorsed by McConnell and President Trump to eliminate mandatory budget caps and suspend the debt ceiling for two years.
Republicans expect the Senate to pass the bill Thursday, with members of both parties opposing the House-approved agreement given its contribution to the $22 trillion national debt.
But three Republican senators and a spokesman for a fourth say leadership hasn’t attempted to convince the most vocal freshmen to back the spending bill, especially since some came out opposed the deal as early as last week.
“They know, with how I just recently came off an election, where I was gonna be,” said Sen. Mike Braun, an Indiana Republican who unseated Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly last year.
“So I couldn’t have been convinced anyway without kind of voting against what I said I [was] running for,” Braun, the first GOP senator to publicly break ranks last week to oppose the deal for its contribution to the debt, added. “And I think that slack was cut accordingly.”
The bipartisan compromise, negotiated primarily by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, would raise the debt by another $1.7 trillion, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Senators reached an agreement Tuesday to allow a vote on Sen. Rand Paul’s amendment capping federal spending and requiring Congress to balance the annual budget, but it’s not expected to pass.
McConnell has been publicly lobbying for the agreement. He reiterated Wednesday that the bill, which swells domestic spending, reflects the realities of divided government while still fulfilling GOP priorities of funding the military and averting a default on the national debt.
“I don't think any senators are actually rooting for a destabilizing continuing resolution. I certainly don't think any senators are rooting for a debt limit crisis that could put our full faith and credit at risk,” McConnell said. “So I believe that every one of our colleagues wants this agreement to pass. That means every one of our colleagues should actually vote for it.”
Not all of his colleagues are listening. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a conservative former member of the House, told reporters this week she’ll vote against the bill. Sen. Mitt Romney also announced last week he will vote against the agreement.
“I believe it’s important for us to finally come to grip with the extent of our deficit spending and keep it from having a national debt which has interest that’s crippling,” Romney said.
Sen. Rick Scott likewise opposes the agreement and in an interview dismissed deficit reduction doubters, citing his record of paying down $10 billion of Florida’s debt while governor.
“I’ve only been up here seven months, but I’m focused on it, so I hope other people will,” Scott said. “I did it in Florida. … They told me I couldn’t do this stuff. I believe you can do it up here, too.”
The freshman Senate Republican class is not unanimous on this topic. Sens. Kevin Cramer and Martha McSally, who both served in the House before securing their seats last year, told National Journal this week they’re supporting the compromise for its military investments.
“So for that reason, and the stability that comes with that, even though I have to hold my nose and accept some other things—that’s what governing’s about—so I’m going to be supporting it,” said McSally, an Air Force veteran running for a full Senate term next year.
Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri said his opposition to the deal, negotiated behind closed doors, was rooted in its process more than its content.
"This is a process where really only four people matter, five, I mean, if you include the House minority leader," Hawley told reporters on Tuesday. “And I think that at the end of the day, I think it’s tremendous amounts of new spending, way over and above what we need ... beyond the defense portions, which I support."
Supporting the measure, which raise budget caps by $324 billion, offers fewer political risks than previous appropriations decisions passed this Congress that allocated less money.
All seven freshman Republicans voted last week to permanently reauthorize the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund after Braun, Blackburn, and Romney voted for both failed amendments offered by Paul and Sen. Mike Lee to limit the fund’s output. Scott also voted for the Lee amendment.
A $4.5 billion emergency supplemental package to address the humanitarian crisis at government migrant-detention facilities similarly made it past the chamber with the seven new members’ support last month.
“This is really, potentially, the only vote that they will have either this year or perhaps even next year that really has any material impact on the fiscal direction of the country,” said Shai Akabas, the director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Freshmen made up half of the Republicans who voted in May against $17.2 billion in aid to states recovering from natural disasters. Braun also opposed the annual national-defense authorization, which green-lit $750 billion in military spending.
This is not the first time these senators have taken a stand on budgetary matters. That’s especially true of Romney, who made fiscal austerity a cornerstone of his general-election campaign in 2012 against President Obama. The former Massachusetts governor joined with Braun in May to introduce legislation requiring disaster aid be appropriated in regular order rather than emergency supplemental packages that bust spending caps.
“[T]his would be a great opportunity for Mitt Romney to assert himself as a national leader on a big issue that means a lot to him,” said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group advocating against deficits. “For example, a Romney-[Mark] Warner initiative on fiscal policy might get attention and become a magnet for others on both sides of the aisle who are concerned about the budget outlook but have nowhere to turn right now.”
The budget caps vote boasts immediate stakes. Political brinkmanship around the debt limit in 2011 caused Standard & Poor’s to downgrade the credit rating on American government bonds, a misstep that Republicans are eager to avoid for both practical and political purposes.
“You can find 100 reasons to vote against it, to criticize,” Cramer said. “But I will not be part of that ‘vote no, hope yes’ crowd that knows we have to raise the debt ceiling, we have to have a budget deal.”
Braun for his part rejects the “vote no, hope yes” descriptor, saying his decision would stay the same if leadership was scrambling to get the 60 votes necessary to clear the chamber.
“I think everybody ought to be” worried about the decline in fiscal conservatism, Braun said. “Because we’ve not only shown that here, but we’ve shown it as I’ve been watching back home every year before I got here.”
This story has been updated to reflect Hawley's opposition to the deal was due to the negotiating process. A previous version of this story indicated Hawley opposed the budget deal's defense topline.