As The Washington Post's Mike DeBonis, Kelsey Snell and Elise Viebeck report, in a meeting with congressional leaders Wednesday, Trump endorsed a Democratic offer to extend the debt ceiling and budget fight for three months and revisit it later this year. That's despite the fact that an hour earlier House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) had called that proposal “ridiculous and disgraceful.” Republicans in both chambers had hoped to extend the debt ceiling by at least a year and a half.
Democrats got involved in that plan earlier in the day, when the House voted on a nearly $8 billion aid package to Harvey victims. Senate Republican leaders had been planning to tie that Harvey aid to a bill to raise the debt ceiling for at least 18 months (i.e., after the November 2018 midterm elections).
But this plan could cost Republican leaders some of their own party's votes, since conservative Republicans oppose raising the debt ceiling unless Congress also cuts spending. They definitely don't want to tack on $8 billion extra.
On Wednesday morning, Democrats essentially said: Fine, we'll agree to help move a Harvey aid/debt ceiling bill. But we're going to do it on our terms. Instead of raising the debt ceiling for a year or so, let's just raise it for three months.
Playing out the debt ceiling fight twice in one year would give Democrats leverage to get more concessions from Republicans when it needs to be raised again in December, and angry conservatives mean Republicans don't have enough votes to pass a debt ceiling hike on their own.
Ryan thought revisiting the debt ceiling again in a few months was a supremely dumb idea. At a news conference Wednesday, he said:
Let’s just think about this: We’ve got all this devastation in Texas. We’ve got another unprecedented hurricane about to hit Florida, and they want to play politics with the debt ceiling? … I think that’s 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.
Then he and other congressional leaders went to the White House for a strategy meeting, where they ended up arguing their side to the president.
Here's the part no one expected: About an hour later, Democrats were the ones raising their fists in victory. Not only would Trump agree to sign a bill that raises the debt ceiling for three months, but he'll also approve of a three-month extension of the budget, essentially giving Democrats not one but TWO new negotiating levers later this year.
“In 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 Dec. 15, all together,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a joint statement Wednesday afternoon.
All of that, much shorter: House Republicans wanted one thing. Democrats wanted another. Trump sided with Democrats, right in front of Republicans' faces, after Ryan had gone on record despising that proposal.
It looks like Trump decided that raising the debt ceiling without too much drama is in his best interest and working with Democrats is the best way to do it. In fact, he didn't even mention Republicans in his telling of what happened.
“We had a very good meeting with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer,” Trump told reporters on Air Force One on Wednesday. “We agreed to a three-month extension on debt ceiling, which they consider to be sacred — very important — always we’ll agree on debt ceiling automatically because of the importance of it.”
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has been sounding the alarm for months now that the country would run out of money in September to pay its bills and needed to issue more debt to investors to get an immediate infusion of cash. The rescue efforts for Hurricane Harvey drew Mnuchin's estimate for doomsday up by a week. If Congress didn't allow Mnuchin to issue more debt, economists warned, the nation could dive headfirst into another recession — under Trump's watch.
Republicans, of course, want the debt ceiling raised in time, too. But a sizable number of fiscal conservatives won't vote to raise the debt ceiling unless it comes with spending cuts. Trump's decision suggests he didn't trust Republicans to be able to navigate all of that without Democrats' help. The Post's DeBonis and Snell report that Republican leaders pushed Trump to let them try to negotiate an 18-month debt limit hike. Then they floated six months. It was to no avail. Trump took Democrats' offer of three months.
Procedural and insider-y? Yes. But this was a marker moment in the already tenuous relationship between Trump and Ryan, and, really, House Republican leadership.
But this latest disagreement between the two feels heavier. If the speaker of the House can't count on the president to have his back on something as high-profile and consequential as raising the debt ceiling, what can he expect the president to support him on?