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.