Friday, May 24, 2024

Behind Trump’s Surprise Deal with Schumer and Pelosi

President Donald Trump’s unexpected willingness to cut a short-term deal with congressional Democrats over the objections of Republican congressional leaders last week has roiled the Washington political establishment. It has left members of both parties wondering whether it was a one-off move to meet urgent legislative deadlines at the end of this month, on the back of urgently needed federal aid for the victims of Hurricane Harvey, or a signal that Trump will no longer rely entirely on Republican support to move forward with his stalled legislative agenda.

Trump’s deal with Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to avoid the threat of a government shutdown and potential financial crisis at the end of this month by raising the debt ceiling and extending current government spending for the next three months was a slap in the face for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, delivered in their presence at a White House meeting last Wednesday.

Congress needed to pass new federal spending authority by the end of the month because the government’s 2017 fiscal year ends on September 30. Government debt hit its statutory limit in mid-March at nearly $20 trillion, and Treasury officials have had to use cash-conservation measures to pay the bills since then to avoid exceeding the debt ceiling. The urgent need for emergency spending to help the victims of Hurricane Harvey made it impossible for Congress to put off raising the debt ceiling any further.

The deal between Trump and the Democrats sets up a new December 8 deadline by which Congress must act to continue federal spending and suspend or raise the debt ceiling. But it also gives Trump and Republican congressional leaders time to regroup, launch their long promised comprehensive tax cut/tax reform measure, and start making good on the many other unfulfilled promises that Republicans have made to voters over the last four federal election cycles.

Reportedly, Trump’s eagerness to cut a quick deal with Democrat leaders during the Oval Office meeting with congressional leaders last week had come as a surprise to almost everyone. Ryan had previously rejected the Democrats’ 3-month debt relief and spending extension offer and had urged the president to demand an 18-month extension of the debt ceiling, which would have lasted beyond next year’s midterm elections.


Trump further alarmed conservatives by reaching what a White House official called a “gentlemen’s agreement” with Schumer to develop a plan that would no longer require Congress to pass legislation to raise the limit on government borrowing every time the ceiling is reached. The idea is not new. Vice President Mike Pence has supported the concept of automatically raising the debt ceiling to the amount necessary every time Congress approves a budget with a deficit. But conservative Republicans have been reluctant to give up the debt ceiling issue because they have been able to use it in the past as a political weapon to hold down federal spending.

However, on Thursday, in response to a reporter’s question, Trump said, “For many years people have been talking about getting rid of [the] debt ceiling altogether and there are a lot of good reasons to do that.”

In response to suggestions to do away with the debt ceiling, three conservative groups, Heritage Action, FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth, wrote a public letter last week strongly opposing “any attempt to raise the national debt limit without significant reforms that put our nation on a path to fiscal balance.”


At Pelosi’s suggestion, Trump sent a Twitter message reassuring the 800,000 illegal aliens relying on President Obama’s DACA executive order protecting them from deportation that they will have nothing to fear while the program winds down. The day before the Oval Office meeting with congressional leaders last week, Trump announced that he was cancelling the DACA program and giving Congress six months to pass new immigration legislation covering those who had entered this country illegally as children.

“For all of those (DACA) that are concerned about your status during the 6-month period, you have nothing to worry about – No action!” Trump tweeted. Pelosi seemed stunned by Trump’s quick action in response to her request. She told a news conference, “This is what I asked the president to do and, boom, boom, boom, the tweet appeared.”

To test Trump’s good faith, Schumer publicly challenged him to recruit more Republican sponsors of a bipartisan bill to preserve the expiring DACA protections for the “Dreamers” who were brought to this country illegally years ago as children. Schumer also asked Trump to urge Republican leaders Ryan and McConnell to bring the bill up for votes in the House and Senate promptly.


Once last week’s deal was cut between Trump and Democrat leaders, Congress acted with unusual speed to turn it into law. Coupled with $15.25 billion in hurricane disaster aid, the bill passed the Senate by an 80-17 margin, followed quickly by the House, which approved it by a vote of 316 to 90. With one-third of House Republicans opposing the deal, it could not have passed without all 183 House Democrats voting yes. All of the “no” votes in both chambers came from a furious minority of Republican conservatives. They accused the president of selling out to the Democrats to enable him to bask in the media praise for a rare legislative win.

The White House issued a statement with a photograph of Trump signing the bill into law at Camp David on Friday which declared: “This Administration will always put the needs of the American people above partisan politics as usual.”

The rapid developments confused congressional Republicans and raised doubts about whether the progressive, anti-Trump Democrat voter base would support a decision by Schumer and Pelosi to cut any legislative deal that made the president look good, even one which was on their own terms.

One of Trump’s most outspoken Republican critics, Senator John McCain, said, “I haven’t seen anything like it before,” during his three decades of service in the Senate, and admitted, “I have no way of divining his [Trump’s] motives. I’m a pretty intelligent guy, but I don’t understand this.”


Republican anger at the administration for cutting the deal with Democrats boiled over on Friday morning at a closed-door meeting between House Republicans and two representatives of the Trump administration. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, a former Wall Street banker and Democrat campaign contributor, and White House budget director Mick Mulvaney, who had been one of the founders of the conservative House Freedom Caucus when he was a member of Congress, argued that Republicans had to put their concerns about the budget deficit aside temporarily in order to respond to the hurricane emergency.

The conservatives were dissatisfied and responded with boos when Mulvaney was unwilling to provide them with assurances that the next spending authorization, due on December 8, would contain any of the spending cuts to reduce the federal deficit which Republicans have been promising their voters for years.

The Republicans were particularly annoyed by Mnuchin’s comments, calling on them to vote for the deal as a personal show of support for him, and then leaving the meeting early, claiming his need to deal with urgent, unspecified other business.

Republican conservatives were also harsh in their treatment of Mulvaney, who had been one of their leaders before joining the administration.

At one point, Darrell Issa of California asked Mulvaney whether he had any openings to hire more deputies at the Office of Management and Budget. When a confused Mulvaney replied that there was only one position in his department available, Issa said he was disappointed, because there are so many conservative Republican congressmen to be converted to Mulvaney’s new position in favor of increasing the debt limit. The biting comment prompted a roar from the rest of the Republicans in the room, as Mulvaney’s face turned red in anger and embarrassment.

Afterward, Mulvaney dodged a question from a reporter about whether he would vote for the Trump-Democrat deal if he were still a member of the House, saying, “I don’t think it’s a relevant question. This was an emergency situation. It was absolutely necessary to do it and not the time to have longer discussions about the larger fiscal issues.”


Some suggested that House Republicans might signal their displeasure by dumping Speaker Ryan as their leader, but a consensus soon formed among them that Ryan was also a victim of the deal that Trump cut with Schumer and Pelosi, strengthening rank and file support for him.

During the closed Republican meeting, Congressman Lee Zeldin complained that Trump did not give House Speaker Paul Ryan the respect he deserved when he agreed to the deal that Democrats offered, and which Ryan had publicly rejected just a few hours earlier.

“When you’re in that Oval Office meeting and the Speaker is there, just know that he was unanimously elected and he represents a conference that is passing one item after another of the agenda and is going to get tax reform done as well,” Zeldin told his Republican colleagues. Ryan, who was also present at the closed meeting, withheld his own opinion on the deal.

After the closed meeting, Zeldin explained to reporters that he opposes Trump’s deal with Schumer and Pelosi because it creates “a new leverage point [the December 8 deadline] that potentially favors Democrats.” He said he was also upset that the deal Trump agreed to amounted to an “end-run” around a Speaker who has the unanimous support of House Republicans.

Zeldin added, “I support the president, I want him to be successful, I want our country to be successful. But I personally believe the president had more leverage than he may have realized. He had more Democratic votes than he realized, and could have and would have certainly gotten a better deal.”


Texas lawmakers met Thursday for a bipartisan lunch with Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who urged them all to support the federal hurricane aid bill. Most conservatives left that meeting saying that they were ready to cast their first House vote ever in favor of a debt-ceiling hike because of the emergency created by the hurricane, but four of them still refused: Joe Barton, Sam Johnson, Jeb Hensarling and Mac Thornberry.

“I love President Trump, and I’m with him probably 90 or 95 percent of the time, but I don’t think it’s appropriate to raise the debt ceiling with $19 trillion public debt and not have any effort to change the way we spend money here in Washington,” Barton said after the meeting with Governor Abbot.

Barton later added, “The debt ceiling is supposed to be at least a stop sign that gives us pause and gives us a chance to change the way we’re doing our spending, and it’s not even a yield sign. In fact, it’s an increase speed sign right now, and that’s wrong.”

Congressman Blake Farenthold was one of the Texas conservatives who held his nose and voted for the deal to get federal aid for his constituents, who were among the first victims of Hurricane Harvey. But he still voiced regrets about what else he had to vote for in order to get the aid.

“My fear is we set a bad precedent here, that you just load it up with other stuff,”Farenthold said. “This is what’s wrong in Washington: They pile stuff together so you have to weigh the good versus the bad rather than give every issue individual consideration. That’s the part of living in the swamp I don’t like.”

Republican Ben Sasse of Nebraska proposed an amendment to the Senate bill to turn it into a stand-alone relief measure for Hurricane Harvey victims, decoupled from extensions of federal spending and the debt ceiling, but it was voted down. Sasse complained on the Senate floor that by engineering the passage of the original bill, Senator Schumer had “just made himself the most powerful man in America for the month of December.”


In preparation for the Oval Office negotiations with the Schumer and Pelosi last week, Trump had met with John Kelly, his White House chief of staff, the White House legislative director, Marc Short, as well as Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and budget director Mick Mulvaney to discuss their strategy.

When the meeting with the Democrats started, Mnuchin presented the opening position of the White House. He portrayed himself as a Wall Street insider, and argued that the stability of the financial markets required an 18-month extension of the debt ceiling. But Schumer, who is well known for his own longtime connections to Wall Street, immediately cast doubt on the idea that “the markets dictate one month past the 2018 election.”

Pelosi added that the concerns of Wall Street carry little weight with the operations of Congress. “Here the currency of the realm is the vote,” she explained. “[If] you have the votes, no discussion [is] necessary. You don’t have the votes, three months [is all you will get].”

The New York Times reported that as the Oval Office discussion continued, Schumer and Pelosi held firm while Mnuchin and Mulvaney gave ground. They reduced their extension demand from 18 months to 12 months, and then to six months. At that point, Trump cut off the discussion by agreeing to the original Democrat offer of three months, in a bill that would include the hurricane emergency funding.

Pelosi later said that she and Schumer had the advantage because Trump knew they had the power to deliver all of their votes in the House and Senate, which was something that the Republican legislative leaders couldn’t do.

“If they had the votes, we wouldn’t have been having the meeting,” Pelosi explained. “The clarity of that situation I think the president was fully aware of.”


Republicans are still debating the reasons why Trump decided to abandon the position of the party’s legislative leaders so abruptly. Some say that it was to spite McConnell and Ryan for failing to keep their promises to get his agenda passed by Congress, and particularly their embarrassing failure to round up enough Republican votes to pass a bill that would keep the promise to repeal and replace Obamacare.

But other Republicans on Capitol Hill see Trump’s decision as more of “a spur-of-the-moment thing,” as one aide put it, without any long-term significance. “He saw a deal and wanted the deal, and it just happened to be completely against what we were pushing for. Our conclusion is there isn’t much to read into other than he made that decision on the spot, and that’s what he does because he’s Trump. He made an impulsive decision because he saw a deal he wanted.”

Trump made acting impulsively and breaking the normal rules of American politics the hallmark of his remarkable rise to political power. Along the way, he has learned to discount the advice he gets from most pundits and veteran politicians in favor of his own gut instincts, which are much more in tune with grass roots American voters. They make up the only political constituency he really cares about.


Conservatives should understand by now that their political relationship with Trump has always been an uneasy alliance of convenience on both sides. The only reason why Trump won the Republican nomination was because disgusted GOP voters revolted against the conventional alternative choices presented to them by party leaders. At several points after he won the nomination, Ryan and other party leaders publicly condemned things Trump said and were ready to dump him as their presidential candidate. They stuck with him only because they realized that abandoning him would have triggered massive defections from the party’s voter base, leading to catastrophic losses for down-ballot GOP candidates around the country.

Trump has shown little allegiance to the leadership of the Republican party because he knows they have no real allegiance to him. Since he took office, they have often criticized his policies and actions. Some have also fed the effort by the media and the progressive left to take Trump down and force him from office using any means necessary, including the promotion of totally unproven allegations of collusion by the Trump campaign with underhanded Russian efforts to manipulate the outcome of the presidential election.


For the first eight months of his presidency, Trump tried to play the Washington game according to the rules, as explained to him by the likes of Ryan and McConnell. It got him nowhere. He wasted months trying to help them get their fellow Republicans in the House and Senate to keep their own promises to do away with Obamacare. “Republicans, sorry, but I’ve been hearing about Repeal & Replace for 7 years, didn’t happen!” Trump recently tweeted, expressing his frustration.

Trump was facing a legislative crisis by the end of this month, without the votes he would need to keep the government running. Even worse, Trump’s crucial proposal to revive the U.S. economy with an aggressive package of tax cuts and tax reforms had fallen far behind schedule and seemed to be dead in the water.

He realized that he needed to act fast and change course to save his presidency. He moved to oust the establishment Republicans and the troublemakers leaking to the media from positions of power in his White House, and put the rest of the operation under the firm control of former General John Kelly.


Now Trump is making a new start, under a different set of political rules. What establishment Republicans saw as a betrayal last week was, in the view of Trump’s supporters, a renewed effort to keep his campaign promises to act as a master dealmaker who is able to cut through the political logjam in Washington to get necessary and long overdue things done.

When asked Friday whether Trump’s willingness to reach agreement with Schumer and Pelosi might become a habit, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded that Trump was only reflecting the pragmatism and bipartisanship in the nation’s best interests that voters expect from any president.

“The most important thing is that the deal got done. The president acted on it and he worked with Democrats to get it done,” said Sanders. “And I think he’s going to continue to work with whoever is interested in moving the ball forward to help the American people.

Later, Sanders added, “We’re a lot less focused on what makes Congress happy.”

Trump is completely focused on achieving the results he has promised to the long-neglected voters who put him in office. They want him to employ his unpredictable, no-apologies and sometimes deliberately outrageous style to pop the self-serving balloons of those who have long ruled the Washington “swamp” he has promised to drain.

They cheer when he rejects behind the scenes maneuvering in favor of taking bold and direct action that puts the needs of the American people before those of political parties, including his own. His grass roots supporters love it when he defies the media and conventional wisdom to fight for the best interests of the country. They measure his success by the volume of the howls of protest put up by the members of the establishment over his common sense policies and actions as president.


Trump has previously called upon McConnell to change the Senate rules to eliminate the filibuster. McConnell did away with the filibuster to get the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court approved, but he has refused to do so for most other types of legislation. Under current Senate rules, most bills need 60 votes to cut off a filibuster that is extending debate with the purpose of preventing a bill supported by the majority from being voted upon and passed. Republicans hold only 52 Senate seats, 8 short of the amount they need to invoke a cloture vote to end a filibuster. In the past, the use of the filibuster by the minority party to block a bill in the Senate was reserved for the most important and divisive issues. But in recent years, its use has become a routine tactic to stymie the majority party’s agenda by creating a semi-permanent legislative logjam.

Explaining his frustration with the current Senate rules, Trump has tweeted, “The Senate Filibuster Rule will never allow the Republicans to pass even great legislation. 8 Dems control- will rarely get 60 (vs. 51) votes.”

Trump has called McConnell’s refusal to do away with the filibuster, a “Republican Death Wish.” The majority leader does have the power to change the Senate’s filibuster rules. That precedent was set during the Obama administration by McConnell’s Democrat predecessor as majority leader, Harry Reid.

Trump is also pressing GOP party leaders for action to pass his top economic priority item before the end of the year. “Republicans must start the Tax Reform/Tax Cut legislation ASAP,” he wrote. “Don’t wait until the end of September. Needed now more than ever. Hurry!”

If the Republican leadership refuses to exercise its majority control over both houses of Congress to pass his legislation, then Trump argues he has no choice but to negotiate with the Democrat minority which controls the votes he needs.


Trump was pleased by the strongly positive reaction in the media to the deal he cut with Schumer and Pelosi. The next morning, he called Pelosi and Schumer to point out that they had also benefitted from the positive press coverage of their willingness to cut a bipartisan deal with the president of the opposing party.

In an interview with reporters, Pelosi expressed no regrets about cutting a deal with Trump, and rejected the idea that most Democrat voters want her and Schumer to avoid attempts to find common ground with Trump.

“I make no apology for doing that with the person who is going to sign the bill,” said Pelosi. “It gives you great leverage.”

She a1so expressed hope that cooperative efforts with Trump will enable Congress to pass long overdue legislation on issues on which Trump has expressed his support, such as resolving the situation of the DACA illegal immigrants who were brought to this country as children.

Pelosi told reporters that after the White House meeting which resulted in the passage of the hurricane aid deal, she had intended to call White House Chief of Staff John Kelly to request that Trump reassure immigrants afraid that they were about to lose their protection from deportation under DACA. But Trump called Pelosi first.

As Pelosi later recalled, “I said ‘Mr. President, I’m so glad you called because this is the challenge we have, I know you didn’t mean to instill fear but it is happening.’ Trump responded, ‘Well what can I do?’ And I said, ‘Do what you always do.’”

Pelosi hung up and went into a meeting with House Democrats to tell them about the call. While that meeting was still going on, Trump tweeted that there would be “no action” against DACA recipients during the six months before the program is phased out.

Pelosi later said she was glad she had begun her presentation by telling the Democrats about her suggestion to Trump that he reassure the DACA participants, just moments before he actually issued that tweet.


Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary for President George W. Bush, said that Trump did the right thing by taking action to stave off, even if just for the short term, a possible default and government shutdown, even though he did it against the wishes of his party’s leaders.

“It’s going to internally hurt him that he didn’t work with Republicans on this one, but by avoiding a mess, he likely saved Republicans from themselves,” Fleischer said. “I consider it a small victory that congressional Republicans didn’t once again trip themselves up over this issue. At least for now.”

Long Island Republican Congressman Peter King said that he told Trump on Thursday that he approved of the deal. “I told him I thought it was great, and a gateway project to show there could be bipartisan progress. . . I think this could be a new day for the Republican Party.” King added that Trump “doesn’t want to be in an ideological straitjacket.”

Conservative House Freedom Caucus co-founder Jim Jordan said he doesn’t blame Trump for striking a less than optimal deal with Democrats because Republicans had failed to give him any better choices.

Appearing on Fox News Sunday, Jordan asked, “Frankly, what options did the president have in front of him?” He noted that Speaker Ryan and his leadership team were at fault for going on their August vacation without having a plan in place to deal with the debt limit as soon as they came back after Labor Day.

“When you fail to prepare, you get a bad outcome. And that’s what happened here,” Jordan said.


Democrats applauded their deal with Trump as a strategic victory in their ongoing struggle with Republicans over the president’s legislative agenda, but several Democrats also warned that the newfound bipartisan spirit of cooperation with Trump could be fleeting.

“There aren’t permanent alliances. There aren’t governing philosophies. There’s day by day, seat-of-the-pants management,” Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut said in an interview.

“Take advantage of it, but do it with the full knowledge that Trump will be calling Charles E. Schumer names on Twitter within the fortnight,” Murphy warned his fellow Democrats.

But Democrat Congressman Jackie Speier was willing to give Trump more credit. Speier told CNN, “I think he’s becoming a little more pragmatic and, frankly, becoming a little more presidential in his ability to recognize that you don’t get anything done around here unless you can find ways to work with both sides.”

However, other Democrats were disappointed that Schumer and Pelosi did not demand more from Trump in return for agreeing to pass the hurricane aid immediately and postpone the showdown with Republicans over next year’s budget and the debt ceiling for three months.

Open borders advocate Congressman Luis Guttierez told a pro-immigration audience last week, “I plead with the Democratic leadership not to allow a vote on a continuing resolution on the funding of our government, not to allow a vote on raising the debt limit, if we didn’t bring you with us.” He later admitted: “We didn’t prevail.”


Democrat progressive activists are warning their party leaders against making any further overtures to a president they don’t respect, whose policies and rhetoric have stirred widespread anger. They still hope that Trump will be forced out of office early by the Russian collusion investigations or impeachment. Failing that, they hope to deprive him of his Republican majority in the House by running Democrats against his positions on the issues of race, immigration, the environment and the economy in next year’s midterm elections.

According to Virginia Democrat Congressman Gerald Connolly, Pelosi is wrong about the party’s willingness to work with Trump. “Our base is deeply alienated from this president. Our base is not saying, ‘Work with him, try to find some common ground.’ That base will be quite jaded about any overt attempts to make him look good or somehow normalize what we’ve experienced here.”


The underlying problem for the Democrats is that they have yet to come up with an original, positive political agenda of their own. The only thing that has truly united them has been their opposition to Trump. The party still suffers from deep scars and ideological divisions from the Hillary Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders clash in last year’s primaries. The publication of a memoire by Clinton is about to reignite the squabbling over the reasons for her embarrassing loss to Trump last year.

Too many Democrats are still looking backward instead of forward. They lack a winning national strategy and a strong candidate with broad popular appeal who can take over the leadership of their party to challenge Trump if he stands for re-election in 2020.

Trump may now be more willing to work with Schumer and Pelosi on further bipartisan agreements, but opposition to any cooperation with the president by the rabidly anti-Trump activists who now control the Democrat party may not permit it.


Trump does not face a similar problem with the grass roots of the Republican party, even though his relationship with the party’s leadership in Washington may be deeply strained at the moment.

Florida Republican Congressman Tom Rooney said, “If you would go to my county Republican clubs right now, they are all about Trump. He is the party.”

The extent of Trump’s control over the GOP voter base will be tested in the midterm elections. He has thrown his weight behind the pro-Trump activists who intend to challenge his most vocal Republican critics in the House and Senate when they stand for re-election. These include senators Jeff Flake of Arizona and Dean Heller of Nevada, two swing states where Democrats are expected to mount strong challenges.

Flake has published a book strongly criticizing the Republican party’s support for Trump as a “Faustian bargain.” Trump responded by publicly saying that he is willing to contribute his own money to support a challenger to Flake’s nomination in the Arizona Republican primary.

With regard to Heller, Trump’s PAC has already broadcast political ads against his re-election. This summer, Trump warned Heller at a televised White House meeting that he risked being voted out of office if he did not support the Republican bill to repeal Obamacare.

The Senate’s second-ranking Republican, John Cornyn, acknowledges, “There’s going to be a little bit of sparring going on,” between Trump’s critics and his opponents in next year’s election cycle, “But hopefully the president will recognize it’s in his best political interest to have as many Republicans in the Senate” as possible. He added, “I think he can count.”


Because there are many more vulnerable Democrat incumbent senators up for re-election next year than Republicans, GOP leaders are optimistic that they will realize a net gain in their current 52-48 seat majority in that chamber, regardless of the outcomes in Arizona and Nevada. However, the current Republican 22-seat House majority is viewed as far more vulnerable next year.

About half-a-dozen Republican members of the House are also facing likely primary challenges by Trump supporters who will accuse them of insufficient loyalty to the president. This has prompted the official House Republican campaign to quietly start a “Primary Patriot” fund-raising effort on behalf of the challenged incumbents.

Mark Harris, a North Carolina minister who is running against Congressman Robert Pittenger in the Republican primary, said that GOP voters had a right to expect more cooperation with Trump from Republicans in Congress. “The average person blames Congress for the failure to enact this president’s agenda,” Harris said. “And personally, I think they’re right.”


Trump’s strong personal base of support among GOP voters means that he does not need to follow the dictates of party leaders. To stay in power in Washington, they need him much more than he needs them. Trump’s deal with Schumer and Pelosi is further proof that he does not feel constrained by their preferences and recommendations.

At heart, Trump has always been a political independent, switching over the years between parties at his convenience. He surprised everyone by beating Clinton for the presidency last November by successfully appealing across traditional party lines to working class voters in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and according to the polls, most still support him.

The key to Trump’s continued success may be to remain an iconoclast, breaking and remaking the accepted political rules, while leaving the media and political pundits shaking their heads in disbelief and confusion.



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