The political world has latched onto the deal reached between President Trump and Democratic congressional leaders, which combines initial relief for victims of Hurricane Harvey with a three-month extension of government funding and the debt limit. Republican leaders, who had their own plan for a long-term debt-limit extension and were cut out of the deal entirely, are “livid” and have gone screaming to the press about it. “The Pelosi-Schumer-Trump deal is bad,” read the one-line statement from Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska. Republicans claim Trump gave away the leverage they would have had over the Democrats in December, ruining their political strategy. They also lament that they had no foreknowledge of Trump’s overture to “Chuck and Nancy,” as he called them. Even Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was blindsided.
At first glance, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan certainly appear to have been screwed over by Trump. But let’s work through whether that’s really the case.
Democrats have an unusual amount of leverage in this Congress when it comes to things like the budget and the debt limit. Senate Democrats have 48 votes, enough to filibuster any bill. Meanwhile, with the House Freedom Caucus implacably opposed to any spending initiatives that don’t produce a balanced budget, House Democrats will inevitably be the deciding votes on these matters.
Add to that a must-pass commitment to rebuild East Texas after flood damage, and there isn’t really much of a choice for Republicans but to work with Democrats on a solution. So what did this deal really achieve? It just freezes the status quo until December, when the two sides will have to work on this all over again.
That alone is a win for Democrats: It’s three more months without the Trump/Republican budget cuts. (Though that’s a pretty small victory.) Republican leaders also saw their attempt to use the Harvey relief bill to pass an 18-month debt-limit extension foiled—that would have kicked the issue past the midterm elections, shielded members from multiple debt-limit votes, and neutralized the far-right hostage-taking. Plus, Republicans really didn’t want to align government funding with the debt limit to create a kind of “fiscal cliff.” This adds more urgency to getting something done and hands more leverage to the holdouts.
All that said, Republican leaders might see this turn of events as positive, regardless of what they are saying in public. They had a packed schedule to deal with in September, and this allows them to put off some major decisions. Plus, they can place the blame with President Trump instead of themselves. It takes some pressure off leadership from the rank and file.
To see this as truly good for Democrats, you have to believe that there’s some endgame for which Chuck and Nancy are willing to hold out. Do people really think that Democrats would play games with the full faith and credit of the US government? I simply don’t see them being that ruthless; this is a difference between the parties. Democrats generally aren’t interested in crippling the government, but that’s what they’d have to be willing to risk in order to succeed in the negotiations.
The obvious policy that Democrats might win by playing hardball is relief for the DREAMers. The president seems to already have a legislative compromise in mind, one that, surprisingly, doesn’t include border-wall funding, over which he was not so long ago willing to shut down the government. The emerging compromise would be a path to citizenship for immigrants brought to this country as children, or perhaps just protection from deportation and a long-term work permit, in exchange for tightened border security—perhaps more funding for Border Patrol agents or additional technology. It should be pointed out that border crossings are extremely low at the moment, so this feels like throwing money down a well. But if it buys freedom from deportation for kids who have never known another country, it could be a deal Democrats are willing to take.
But that deal doesn’t really have to wait until December. There are other must-pass bills coming down the pike. More supplemental funding for Harvey will almost certainly be needed, and you may have heard about another massive hurricane headed straight for America. Reauthorizing flood insurance, which will be doubly needed now, has to get passed as well. Republicans don’t want the bad optics of voting against relief for needy hurricane victims, especially ones that come from red states like Texas. Pelosi and Schumer have said that they will attach a DREAM Act deal to every bill throughout the fall until they succeed. So what if that happens before December? What’s the ask, then, on the government funding and debt-limit bill?
It could be the elimination of the debt limit altogether. Trump apparently floated that in his meeting with congressional leaders Wednesday. I don’t know that removing a procedural barrier will be seen as enough of a political win for Democrats to bite. But, substantively, this would be an incredibly important move. The debt limit is a weird, artificial construct that forces Congress to approve paying the bills they’ve already racked up by agreeing to the spending. It enables both parties to play an incredibly dangerous game with the country’s finances for no real reason; and, since Republicans are simply more reactionary, it enables them far more. And nobody in Congress is relishing taking the vote; they should be thrilled to consign it to history.
The problem is that hostage takers like the power the debt limit gives them to make unrelated changes to public policy. Paul Ryan rejected the idea of killing debt-limit votes at a news conference Thursday, saying, “There’s a legitimate rule for the power of the purse in Article 1 powers.” There’s nothing legitimate about having to authorize spending twice—once by allowing it and the second time by agreeing to pay for it. Pelosi and Schumer do seem interested in ending debt-limit brinkmanship. But that also calls into question their commitment to employing the debt limit to strike a hard bargain in December.
In other words, leverage exists only if you’re willing to use it. And, furthermore, Democrats might exhaust their leverage by winning their top priority before the final deal.
But one last point: Republican congressional leaders are worried about playing a bad hand in negotiations because they, in fact, have a bad hand. They haven’t earned a major legislative victory, have numerous pile-ups of must-pass bills, and have a right flank that wants to destroy the government to get its aims. They are not functionally in control of Congress. And they’re whining that Trump, like a broken clock twice a day, got that right.