As the September deadline approached for the government to find a solution to the rapidly encroaching debt ceiling (the fixed limit permissible for the government to borrow funds to keep itself operating), President Trump found himself confronted with two options.
Senators in his own party, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, wished to make a deal that would have granted aid to victims of Hurricane Harvey in Texas by tying the money to a $2 trillion increase in the debt ceiling, with no commitments to any hardline, long-term spending reforms. For President Trump, this meant that his plans for tax reform would have been up in the air, his long-promised wall on the southern border of the U.S. would have to be delayed, and Congress wouldn’t be committed to any more Trump-related agenda items until after the 2018 midterm elections; essentially, the most important policies of his “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) campaign promises would have to be pushed off for 18 months in order to make the deal and get necessary flood aid for victims of Hurricane Harvey.
“The events last week in Houston were devastating, but even before the murky waters in Texas have fully receded, Congress is already up to its old shenanigans,” wrote David McIntosh, president of the Club for Growth, a conservative political advocacy group. “That’s because when special interests and lobbyists hear the magic words ’emergency spending,’ their eyes light up like a kid at Christmas-time. Instead of reserving emergency funds for those in greatest need of assistance, opportunistic politicians are using this tragedy as a blank check to fund pet projects all over the country. They’re exploiting victims to hand out pork — it’s despicable.”
“If this is what happens, we actually wind up with a worse deal than when [John] Boehner was Speaker [of the House] and [Barack] Obama was president,” said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the conservative Tea Party Patriots activist organization. “At least when Boehner was Speaker and Obama was president, we got some sort of spending cuts. It wasn’t even cuts — it was a reduction in the increase. [With what the GOP leadership is proposing], there’ll be no reduction, no cuts, and it’ll be a $2 trillion bill that passes.”
For Trump, this deal was the last straw from his own party, which had failed to repeal Obamacare (despite swearing it wanted to replace the failing health care program of the last seven years), failed to pass funds for the border wall and failed to support the president time and again when the legislative road got rocky.
Prior to Hurricane Harvey, Trump had threatened to let the government shut down if funding for his wall wasn’t approved by Congress. Republican leaders fought back. “I don’t think a government shutdown is necessary, and I don’t think most people want to see a government shutdown — ourselves included,” stated Paul Ryan at a recent news conference.
Regarding McConnell, the White House released this vague statement on August 23: “President Donald J. Trump and Senator Mitch McConnell remain united on many shared priorities, including middle-class tax relief, strengthening the military, constructing a southern border wall and other important issues. They will hold previously scheduled meetings following the August recess to discuss these critical items with members of the Congressional leadership and the President’s Cabinet.”
But more amenable to Trump’s wishes, however, was an agreement being offered by the Democrats, whereby lawmakers on the Left would agree to a debt ceiling extension that would keep the government operating for just another three months and delay talk about MAGA items only until December.
For Trump, this was the more preferred option. But when he announced that he’d reached a deal with Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, members of the president’s own party were stunned at what they felt was an utter reversal of his previous position of intransigence toward the Democrats. How could the president so easily have broken ranks with staunch conservatives and the GOP establishment?
Of course, Republican leaders like McConnell and Ryan (the latter of whom called the Democrats’ deal “ridiculous and disgraceful”) might be less than pleased to know that among the nation’s voters, they’re much more reviled than the president is. Indeed, the public’s distaste for top GOP leaders in the wake of their failure to act on items like Obamacare is now reaching a breaking point. (Of course, it doesn’t help matters any that Mitch McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, is Trump’s Secretary of Transportation, or that Trump and Paul Ryan were scheduled to dine together on September 7, the day the deal with the Democrats was announced.)
“I don’t think it’s the president going rogue, but I think he needs to be a little more explicit — giving [Republicans] a warning of the direction he’s going,” said Republican Congressman Tim Walberg of Michigan. “I hope in the future, he’ll at least step to the side of the room with leadership and say, ‘This is what I’m thinking.'”
The fact that the House of Representatives and the Senate approved the agreed-to debt ceiling bill on September 8 means that immediately, $15 billion can now go to victims of Hurricane Harvey in Texas, even as Florida recovers from Hurricane Irma and keeps a close eye on Hurricane Jose.
A day earlier, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told Fox News, “We’re very happy we have a deal. The president’s priority was to make sure we have the funding for [Hurricane] Harvey and to make sure we raise the debt limit to pay for that.” In a speech in North Dakota, President Trump thanked the Democrats specifically, even though his own party ultimately contributed to the 316-90 tally that got the agreement through the House (it should be stated, however, that all the “No” votes on the agreement came from Republicans).
Of course, the Democrats have tried to present this deal as President Trump’s betrayal of the GOP and as an admission by Trump that the Democrats have been the more reasonable party all along. There’s even talk that they may try to get Trump to cut a deal with them on immigration or other pending matters.
But all this talk of rapprochement from the Chuck Schumers and Nancy Pelosis of the world is likely short-sighted. That’s because, whether it’s President Trump striking a bargain with Nancy Pelosi in 2017 or former President Ronald Reagan making a deal with legendary Speaker of the House Thomas ‘Tip’ O’Neill in 1982, there’s a more apt word for these grand settlements across the partisan aisle — that word is “politics,” and it’s both a temporary and a permanent state of affairs in Washington.