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By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans are poised this week to release their proposed 2016 budget, an annual blueprint that usually serves as a political rallying cry for smaller government.

This year, however, with Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress, the process promises to ignite a fresh round of GOP infighting as the party faces the limits of its budget-slashing aspirations.

The party’s ambitious goals to rein in the nation’s $18 trillion debt load will require deeply painful reductions in government spending that GOP defense hawks refuse to stomach, particularly when it comes to the Pentagon.

But facing pressure from fiscal conservatives for a tough approach that cuts across all aspects of the federal government and its safety net programs, Republican leaders are struggling to produce a document that can unify its ranks.

Whether House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) will be able to usher a budget to passage remains highly uncertain.

The party’s budget problems are the latest challenge for the Republican-led Congress that swept into power promising not only to cut spending but also to use the budget process to attack President Barack Obama’s top priorities — including the GOP’s effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Those ambitions may need to be scaled back as the party struggles to find common ground on the fiscal blueprint itself.

On Monday, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) announced that he is working with a group of like-minded lawmakers to preserve Pentagon spending, setting up a potential showdown.

“Providing for our national defense is the most fundamental test of our ability to govern,” McCain said. “Republicans cannot afford to fail this test.”

Even before the GOP took control of Congress this year, rolling back what many lawmakers have characterized as out-of-control federal spending had been a hallmark of the party’s platform.

Republicans vowed to balance budgets with 10 years — a goal set by the party’s leading budget guru, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the onetime vice presidential candidate and former chairman of the House Budget Committee.

“It’s a plan to get Washington’s fiscal house in order,” said Rep. Tom Price (R-GA), the committee’s new chairman, in a video preview of the budget plan before Tuesday’s scheduled release.

But reaching that milestone has proved difficult — especially while adhering to the GOP’s no-new-taxes pledge.

Democrats have refused to go along with Republican proposals to cut domestic accounts and substantially overhaul Medicare and Medicaid safety net programs.

Senator Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent who heads the Senate Budget Committee for Democrats, has warned against a budget that represents “the Robin Hood principle in reverse.”

“We must not take from the poor to give to the rich,” Sanders said. “We must not cut programs that the elderly, the children, the sick, the poor and working families desperately depend on, in order to give more tax breaks to large, profitable corporations.”

At issue are the so-called sequester cuts that both parties reluctantly agreed to as part of the 2011 budget showdown.

Most of those cuts had been postponed because lawmakers decided they were too politically painful.

But now those cuts are set to roar back in full with the start of the new fiscal year, Oct. 1, setting up a budget showdown not only between Democrats and Republicans but also between the GOP’s defense and deficit hawks.

Obama proposed doing away with the sequester cuts in his own 2016 budget, which proposed new taxes on wealthier households and corporations as a way to pay for reversing reductions planned for the Pentagon and other programs.

Improvements in the economic outlook, including the smallest federal deficits since the start of the Great Recession, gave the White House the political momentum to rebuff the GOP’s push for more austerity.

Republicans are loath to allow the president’s budget to provide greater Pentagon funding than their own, and are desperately seeking an alternative.

One option for Republicans would be to set up a two-part strategy in which Congress preserves the sequester cuts, but also establishes a so-called Deficit Neutral Reserve Fund that could be used to offset the Pentagon cuts.

“It leaves open a negotiation for a few months down the road,” Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) said as he emerged from a closed budget briefing with GOP senators last week. “The military hawks are becoming comfortable (with it).”

But the most hardened fiscal conservatives may view that strategy as little more than a punt that opens the door to more spending — and one they will not support.

And more pragmatic members were considering the options. “It’s still a work in progress,” said Senator Susan Collins (R-ME).

Photo: Speaker Boehner via Flickr

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