GOP senators confront deal that punts hard choices on spending

Republican senators — some of whom have made fiscal responsibility a cornerstone of their campaigns and focus in Washington — are shrugging at a two-year deal that raises the debt ceiling, thwarts a debt default and cements top-level spending numbers that exceed what they themselves would have agreed to.

It’s a familiar grumble and not one that is expected to derail the vote or endanger the agreement, but it reveals the long-simmering schisms within the conference that pits the appropriators, leaders and practically-minded Republicans against their more ideological colleagues — some of whom came to Washington on the promise of reining in government spending during the rise of the tea party.

“We are punting the ability for the next two years, any kind of savings mechanism. We have to have some moment. That moment is typically the debt ceiling,” said Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma. “As I am looking at it now, I can’t support it.”

Some Republicans expressed tepid acceptance of the deal, noting that it was the best they could do in a time of divided government where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, is wrestling with an unruly and split caucus of her own.

“It wouldn’t be the one I would’ve written, but you have to in a place like this where you have a divided government, try to get the best possible deal you can,” said GOP Sen. John Thune of South Dakota.

“Democrats exist. They run the House,” said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “The numbers for the military will keep us on track to rebuild what I think has been a depleted force. The real driver of the debt is entitlement, so count me in.”

Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee also said entitlements are to blame.

“All this chest beating about the deficit is appropriate but what’s inappropriate is blaming it on national defense, national parks and national laboratories,” Alexander said. “The problems are Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and entitlements and when someone has the courage to do something about that, I’ll listen to them.”

Other Republicans expressed outright concerns with the deal.

When CNN questioned Sen. Tim Scott, also from South Carolina, about whether he will vote for the deal, he said “not likely.”

GOP Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said the spending caps were the only way Congress could reduce spending.

“Hard spending caps can have an effect,” Johnson said. “But we’ve weaseled out of that and this is the final nail in that coffin. We’ve completely blown off whatever fiscal restraint we did enact the first two years I was here in the Senate. I’ve highly disappointed that once again the general tendency is to spend more money.”

Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana said he “did not know yet” if he would vote for the deal, but “color me doubtful.”

“It may taste like pumpkin pie, but I’ve got a lot of questions,” Kennedy said. “Cutting spending around here is like going to heaven. Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody’s quite ready to take the trip. I’ve got a lot of questions.”

Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz said he does have concerns about the deal when asked but would not answer whether or not he plans to vote for it. Sen. Mike Crapo, a Republican from Idaho, also said he had concerns about the fact that the legislation wasn’t fully payed for.

All in all, Republican leaders always expect defections on spending bills. They can easily lose two dozen or more members and pass the legislation without undue drama. More pressing will be how much support the legislation gets from Republicans in the House of Representatives, where members will vote this week.

President Donald Trump has already tweeted his support and GOP leaders are holding firm that the President’s blessing is on solid ground. But as Thune said “we always hold our breath until something gets signed into law.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin met with Senate Republicans Tuesday, but it’s unclear how much that helped cement the deal for those hard “nos” or those on the fence. Mnuchin hasn’t always had the best track record of winning over members.

“He just doesn’t communicate very well,” said one Republican senator who had not made their mind up about the compromise.

Asked what Mnuchin should say or avoid saying, the member demurred, “Maybe don’t be here.”

While some sources told CNN Mnuchin’s speech Tuesday didn’t go well and that he was at times flailing, others defended his presentation.

One senator who attended the lunch described Mnuchin’s presentation as at times rambling, and more of a blow-by-blow account of a negotiation Mnuchin “was clearly proud of” than a topline recitation of the pieces of the agreement that would appeal to the gathered lawmakers. It also ate into the time senators had to ask questions about the agreement.

“He’s been deep in negotiations for weeks and sometimes it’s a little difficult to pull back out from those in a big group setting,” the senator said in describing how Mnuchin at times struggled to connect on the broader components of the deal.

That said, a number of GOP senators did speak in support of the bill during the closed-door lunch, multiple senators said.

“He gave us a good perspective of how we got to where we are, assurances that the President will sign the bill,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican who will support the agreement, told reporters. She called the response to Mnuchin’s walk through of the deal “a little mixed,” but added there’s “a lot of support” for the bipartisan agreement.

After the meeting, Senate Republican Whip John Thune of South Dakota denied there is a lot of skepticism in his conference about the agreement.

“I don’t think that’s true. I think there are always Republicans who are going to say we spent more here than we would have liked, but this is a divided government. We had to have Democrats in the House vote for this and 60 in the Senate and a bill the President would sign,” he said. “This was a protracted negotiation and I think they achieved the best deal they could possibly get. It probably won’t get all of our members, but it will get a lot of them.”

This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.

CNN’s Phil Mattingly and Manu Raju contributed to this report.