It’s a plot twist in a presidency that sometimes seems more about drama than policy: Surprise! President Trump’s a Democrat now, not a Republican.
Well, maybe that’s an overstatement. But Mr. Trump’s sudden affinity for deals with Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi has aggravated raw divisions in the president’s own party. It may even force a long-building final confrontation between activist and establishment factions of the GOP.
Will it actually make much difference for the debt ceiling, hurricane relief, tax reform, and other important fiscal stuff now working its way through Congress? Maybe not. But that’s another story. [The Senate passed a $15.3 billion hurricane Harvey aid package Thursday afternoon.]
Let’s back up a bit: On Wednesday Trump struck a deal with the Democratic leadership to combine hurricane Harvey disaster relief with a three-month extension of the debt ceiling and the continuing resolution that funds the government.
In political terms he might as well have stolen House Speaker Paul Ryan’s gym bag and knocked Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s glasses off his face.
The GOP leadership had insisted that the debt ceiling, etc., needed to be extended for at least 18 months. They’d been hoping to use the must-vote status of hurricane aid to push politically difficult fiscal votes past next year’s mid-term elections.
Mission Un-Accomplished. The GOP leadership was furious – particularly because they thought Trump agreed with them. Yet he reversed course right to their face. And Democrats made the most of their newfound presidential friendship.
Ms. Pelosi suggested Trump reassure so-called “Dreamers” – the children of illegal-immigrant parents who brought them into the country as minors – that they wouldn’t be deported over the next six months, even though he’d rescinded a program protecting them just the day before. Trump agreed, and tweeted the sentiment promptly.
Mr. Schumer, like Trump a New Yorker skilled at television appearances, added that maybe it would be great if we just got rid of the debt ceiling thing entirely. Why vote continually to increase the amount of money the government can borrow? Trump agreed to pursue the idea. (Representative Ryan indicated that won’t happen. Congress would never vote to give up that power, he said.)
Two points from all this:
1. This exacerbates existing GOP divisions. The conservative activist wing of the party, represented by tea party groups and the House Freedom Caucus, won’t abide Trump’s easy fiscal agreements. They might label a president of their own party a RINO (Republican in name only), while attempting to oust Speaker Ryan for swallowing his pride and backing the deal.
Republicans have been a fractious party for a while now. December – when the fiscal issues all crash together – could be a wild month for the caucus.
2. Despite all the end-zone celebrations by Democrats, this may not really change legislative outcomes that much. It’s true that Democrats may have a bit more leverage in December. But the House Freedom Caucus always opposes debt ceiling increases and urges fiscal constraint. The GOP always needs Democratic votes for the must-pass debt bill. There have been enough cliffhanger votes in recent years to see they always get solved the same way: bills that more or less preserve the status quo.
We’ll find out in three months. Is that a TV sweeps period? Just asking.