In Washington, deals are incremental and victories are rarely absolute (no matter how much politicians may spin otherwise). That's where we find ourselves now.
Republicans and Democrats voted last week to raise the debt ceiling and temporarily fund the government through December, essentially putting off all the legislative, political and economic drama that was supposed to come this month until the holidays.
Democrats cheered. They were the ones who got President Trump to agree to sign a bill that forces Congress to revisit this issue in December (and thus gives them a chance to negotiate for add-ons). Republicans tried to urge Trump to support a bill that raises the debt ceiling for much longer.
But not so fast, say Republicans. Democrats' “victory” may slip through their fingers.
“Let's put it this way,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in an interview Monday for a New York Times podcast. “The deal is not quite as good as my counterpart thought it was.”
There's some saving face going on, but both sides have a point about why this deal might not be as big of a deal as the other side is making it out to be. Lets run down their arguments in an effort to look forward to how the debt ceiling “deal” could go awry for both Democrats and Republicans in the coming months.
Republicans didn't get what they wanted: a long-term hike of the debt ceiling
Win for: Democrats
This win is the most clear-cut of the bunch. Republicans wanted one thing, Democrats wanted another. Trump sided with Democrats, right in front of Republicans' faces, and hours after House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) had gone in front of cameras and publicly called the idea of short-term debt extension “ridiculous.”
The end result: Democrats have leverage to negotiate for what they want in December.
Congress voted to allow the cash-strapped Treasury Department to issue debts to investors so it can pay its bills only until December. After that, the Treasury Department needs to ask Congress to allow it to raise more money. Republicans had hoped to vote in September to give the Treasury Department debt authority through November 2018, conveniently after the midterm elections.
Congress will still have to vote on a spending bill for fiscal 2018 in December. Because hard-line fiscal conservatives in the House may not vote for either the spending bill or to raise the debt ceiling, Republicans will need Democrats' help to pass both. And that puts Democrats in a position of power by offering their votes in exchange for, say, protection for “dreamers” or the Affordable Care Act.
A debt ceiling vote may not come until 2018
Win for: Republicans. Kind of.
Not so fast, Democrats, McConnell is saying. He went along with Trump’s wishes and passed a bill that raises the debt ceiling to December, alongside a spending bill that also runs out in December. But he also made sure the Treasury can borrow money from other federal agencies to pay its bills before it has to come back to Congress. That means the Treasury Department may not need Congress to vote to raise the debt ceiling until April or even June of next year, which means when Congress votes to fund the government later this year, it may not have to vote on the debt ceiling, too.
The end result: Democrats will only have one must-pass bill they can negotiate their votes for in December, the spending bill.
But seen another way, this could also be a Democratic win. By splitting up the debt ceiling and spending bill votes, Democrats now have not one but two shots at selling their votes for a deal.
Democrats don't have any real victories yet
Win for: We'll see.
Democrats have only negotiated the ability to negotiate. They still have to negotiate their way to more tangible legislative victories. In fact, some Democrats were upset that their leaders only negotiated a debt-ceiling extension and not, say, protections for the dreamers, young undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children.
“So Trump attacks our dreamers, and the next day the Democrats walk in there and say, ‘Oh, let’s just have a nice timeout,’ while they’re all suffering?” Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) told my colleague Mike DeBonis. “That is what is wrong with Democrats. They don’t stand up.”
A lot can happen over the next few months: Maybe Republicans won't need their votes to raise the debt ceiling. Maybe Trump will decide to reinstate the dreamer program on his own. Maybe something will happen in the Russia investigation that makes all of this back-and-forth moot.
The end result: There's still plenty of tug of war for both parties to play. Because Republican leaders in Congress need Democrats' votes, Democrats do have the upper hand. But victories are not guaranteed.
Trump sided with Democrats, flying directly in the face of Republicans
Win for: Democrats. For now.
Is Trump tiring of Republican leaders in Congress, with whom he's never had a good relationship? Does Trump see more to be gained by negotiating with Democrats? Or did he just make a decision on a whim about extending the debt ceiling for three months, and what he wanted just happened to benefit Democrats?
The end result: Who knows? What's going on in Trump's head — and how that manifests with regard to his long-term allegiances to Republicans — is the biggest unknown right now. It's also the most important factor to deciding who has really won the Great Budget Battle of Fall 2017.