Could the Budget Deal Fail?

On Tuesday, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R, WI-1) announced a two-year budget agreement that could potentially offer a respite from the fiscal fights of the past few years. But many conservative House Republicans are already balking at the deal because it breaks the spending caps called for under the sequester. Some conservative groups, such as Americans for Prosperity and the Club for Growth, have already come out in opposition, offering threats to GOP incumbents who vote for it.

Our bet is that the bill will pass, perhaps handily. But legislative politics is trickier in some ways than electoral politics because the number of "voters" is far smaller, and they are all highly informed and strategic in their thinking. Therefore, let's suppose the Crystal Ball is wrong in its prediction of passage. How would the budget compromise be defeated in Congress?

At present, there are 432 members in the U.S. House. While the special election to replace now-Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) took place on Tuesday and saw Katherine Clark (D) duly elected, she hasn't been seated yet. It's also unlikely that Rep. Mel Watt (D, NC-12) will vote considering he was just confirmed in the Senate as the new head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency. This means that we can expect about 430 votes on the Murray-Ryan deal, as Speaker of the House John Boehner (R, OH-8) may not vote (the speaker rarely votes, although he did vote for the deal to end the shutdown). For simplicity's sake, let's just say 216 votes are needed to stop the deal.

How to get to 216 noes? There were 144 Republicans who voted against the October agreement to end the government shutdown. If all of them (or the same number of Republicans) voted against the budget compromise, one would need 72 Democrats to also vote no, and there will certainly be some liberals who will vote against it. As a past example, take a look at the vote on the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA), which set up the sequestration cuts that occurred earlier this year. In that roll call, 95 Democrats voted against the deal, mostly liberals who opposed some spending cuts. Of those 95 Democrats who voted against it, 72 remain in Congress today, the exact number needed to stonewall the Murray-Ryan agreement if 144 Republicans were to vote against it.

Now, there were some moderate-conservative Democrats who opposed the BCA because of potential military spending cuts, like Rep. Mike McIntyre (D, NC-7). And some of the other Democratic nays might be yeas on this deal. On the other hand, some of those 23 Democratic noes who are no longer in the House have been replaced by other liberal Democrats who might oppose the Murray-Ryan framework.

Of the 144 Republicans who voted against the shutdown deal, only nine were from seats that the Crystal Ball currently rates as competitive. Of the 72 Democrats who remain in the House who voted against the BCA in 2011, only three occupy seats we view as competitive (and one of them is McIntyre). Thus, most of the potential no-votes on this budget deal represent safe seats. For many of them, a chief political concern is the prospect of a primary challenge from their right or left, and a conservative voting for spending increases or a liberal voting for program cuts could attract one.

While our sources are relatively confident of the deal's success, recent events tell us that we should remain cautious until it's actually passed, especially because there are sufficient numbers, at least theoretically, to stop it.

This column was originally published in Sabato's Crystal Ball.

Geoffrey Skelley is an associate editor at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

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