Trump sides with Democrats on debt ceiling, throwing Republican plans into chaos
Lawmakers on the House floor Sept. 6 urged their colleagues to pass an aid package for victims of Hurricane Harvey, though New York Democrats reminded Texans of how they voted after Hurricane Sandy. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post) September 6 at 2:35 PM
President Trump confounded leaders from his own party on Wednesday by siding with Democrats on plans to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling, upending negotiations on a variety of crucial policy areas this fall and further damaging relationships with Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Trump made his position clear at a White House meeting with congressional leaders, agreeing with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) by voicing support for a three-month bill to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling for the same amount of time.
âWe had a very good meeting with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer,â Trump told reporters Wednesday on Air Force One while traveling to North Dakota. âWe agreed to a three-month extension on debt ceiling, which they consider to be sacred â" very important â" always weâll agree on debt ceiling automatically because of the importance of it.â
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he would add provisions extending government funding and the debt limit through mid-December to legislation passed by the House on Wednesday that would provide $7.85 billion in Hurricane Harvey relief.
âThe president agreed with Sen. Schumer and Congresswoman Pelosi to do a three-month [funding extension] and a debt ceiling into December, and thatâs what I will be offering based on the presidentâs decision, to the bill. And weâll try to get 60 votes and move forward,â McConnell told reporters Wednesday afternoon. âThe president can speak for himself, but hi s feeling was that we needed to come together to not create a picture of divisiveness at a time of genuine national crisis. And that was the rationale.âDemocrats decried the Trump administration's decision to wind down Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, while many Republicans agreed that DACA was an "overreach." (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)
The presidentâs decision came barely an hour after House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) panned the idea of a brief debt hike, accusing Democrats of âplaying politicsâ with much needed aid for Hurricane Harvey victims by trying to create pressure for their agenda.
âLetâs just think about this: Weâve got all this devastation in Texas. Weâve got another unprecedented hurricane about to hit Florida, and they want to play politics with the debt ceiling?,â Ryan told reporters. âI think thatâs ridiculous and disgraceful that they want to play politics with the debt ceiling at this moment when we have fellow citizens in need, to respond to these hurricanes so we do not strand them.â
Trump, apparenty, disagreed.
âWe essentially came to a deal, and I think the deal will be very good,â he said. âWe had a very, very cordial and professional meeting.â
At the White House, Republican leaders pushed for a 18 month debt limit hike and then floated doing a six-month extension, according to two aides briefed on the meeting. But Pelosi and Schumer dismissed the six month proposal and Trump then agreed to the three month hike that Democrats put on the table.
Democrats believe kicking the debt limit debate into December would increase their leverage on Republicans to secure stabilization funds for health-care markets and resolve the legal status of undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children.
âIn the meeting, the President and Congressional leadership agreed to pass aid for Harvey, an extension of the debt limit , and a continuing resolution both to December 15, all together,â Schumer and Pelosi said in a statement. âBoth sides have every intention of avoiding default in December and look forward to working together on the many issues before us.âHouse Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) accused Democrats of wanting to "play politics with the debt ceiling" during a time of national crisis on Sept. 6. The country is slated to hit the debt ceiling at the end of September. (Reuters)
The two Democratic leaders also called on Congress to pass protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, after Trump rescinded an executive order signed by former president Obama that created a program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, that allowed them to stay in the country without fear of deportation.
âAs Democratic leaders, we also made it clear that we strongly believe the DREAM Act must come to the floor and pass as soon as possi ble and we will not rest until we get this done,â Schumer and Pelosi stated.
An agreement to fund the government into December accomplishes a goal for Trump and his allies, who have long sought a showdown with Democrats over the $1.6 billion he wants to start construction of a wall along the Mexico border. White House officials last week recognized that they were unable â" given the confluence of issues colliding in September â" to have that fight with Democrats now, but they planned to regroup in December with allies and mobilize their base of supporters.
Trump has threatened he would shut down the government if Congress doesnât agree to fund the wall construction, and he would be in a better position to leverage that threat in December than in September, when Congress had numerous bills lawmakers felt needed to be passed.
But by agreeing to also suspend the debt ceiling until Dec. 15, Trump has given Democrats more leverage in a series of upcoming negoti ations. Some Senate Republicans wanted the debt ceiling to be suspended for 18 months, so that it wouldnât loom over them before the midterm elections next year.
Still, suspending the debt ceiling until December effectively gives Congress until at least April 2018, because the Treasury Department can take emergency steps to delay a default on the debt. That potentially decouples the debt ceiling fight with the government spending showdown, which could isolate Trumpâs threat to shut down the government from the risk of a financial crisis linked to the debt ceiling.
The short-term extensions for both the debt ceiling and government funding could further cloud the prospects for pushing through a major tax cut, which is Trumpâs top domestic priority at the moment. It effectively means that spending and budget fights will continue for months at a time when the GOP was hoping to coalesce around a plan to cut taxes.
The White House meeting took place just as the House approved a $7.85 billion aid package for victims of Hurricane Harvey, its first major order of business following the August recess and Congressâs first step toward fulfilling President Trumpâs promise of relief for South Texas.
The measure providing $7.4 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and $450 million for a disaster loan program for small businesses passed 419-3 with 12 representatives not voting. Reps. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) voted no. It now moves to the Senate, where leaders plan to hold a vote by the end of the week.
[Recovering from Harvey when âyou already live a disaster every day of your lifeâ]
Emergency relief is one of at least half a dozen must-pass items on Congressâs agenda this month. Lawmakers are under pressure to avoid a government shutdown and a U.S. debt default while reauthorizing critical programs like the Federal Aviation Administration and extending fun ds for health insurance for about 9 million children.
Trump added another matter to the pile Tuesday when he moved to rescind an executive order granting work permits to dreamers, setting a six-month deadline for Congress to act on a replacement.
[Trump administration announces end of immigration protection program for âdreamersâ]
Avoiding a government shutdown will be a difficult task. Government spending bills, like most other legislation, need 60 votes to pass the Senate. Republicans control 52 seats, meaning that they will have to turn to Democrats to provide at least eight votes to avert a government shutdown.
Conservatives worry that Democrats plan to demand increased spending on domestic priorities, like education and low-income assistance, in exchange for their votes. Schumer and Pelosi have also signaled that they will not vote for any funds to help pay for Trumpâs long-promised wall on the U.S. border with Mexico.
Rep. Mark Meado ws (R-N.C.), the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, was among those who warned that Democratsâ short-term debt limit request could threaten Republican plans to cut spending.
âObviously getting a [continuing resolution] and the debt ceiling to not come due at the same time would be the most prudent fiscal decision we could make,â Meadows told reporters.
The Freedom Caucus met Tuesday evening but did not adopt an official position to oppose an aid bill for Hurricane Harvey victims if it includes an increase in the federal debt limit â" something that could complicate plans to deal with the two issues in tandem. But Meadows said there was âoverwhelmingâ opposition to doing so and that the issue could be revisited if the Senate moves to attach a debt provision.
[Senate leaders to vote on measure combining debt ceiling increase, hurricane relief]
âItâs very clear that the majority of our members feel like attaching the debt cei ling â" a clean debt ceiling without structural reforms â" to Harvey relief is not something that they would support,â he said. âAt the same time, we felt like itâs important that we deal with the Harvey relief.â
The Freedom Caucus did adopt a position for a favored approach to reforming the debt ceiling: raising it initially, but including a federal spending cap pegged to a fixed percentage of the gross domestic product that would decrease over time. âWeâre willing to increase the debt ceiling if we actually address the underlying problem, namely the $20 trillion debt,â said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a Freedom Caucus leader.
In a sign that steps must be taken to appease skeptical House Republicans, a key Houston-area lawmaker floated a proposal that would attach language proposing a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget to the Republican budget resolution â" a separate piece of legislation that could see a House vote this month.
Rep. John Abney Culberson (R-Tex.), whose west Houston district has been devastated by flooding, said that conservatives could vote for a debt-limit increase in good conscience if they know a major spending reform is in the offing.
âWho could be opposed to a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution?â he said. âThe U.S. cannot default on our debt â" thatâs just not acceptable. This is a solution that will work.â
While he said his proposal would offer a âclear pathâ to a constitutional amendment, the process set out under Article V of the Constitution would ultimately require ratification from three-fourths of states â" a tall order, to say the least.
Republican leaders said the House would not leave Washington until Harvey relief is passed, leaving open the possibility of Saturday votes. âWe will not leave until we get this done,â Ryan said.
Damian Paletta and Paul Kane contributed to this story.
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