What would you wish for if a genie appeared and offered you one wish? Even schoolchildren eventually stumble upon the right answer: “I would wish for 100 more wishes.” This playground wisdom explains why Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi were smart to strike their debt-ceiling deal with President Trump.
With the arrival of the fall fiscal crisis, Schumer and Pelosi had leverage with Trump for the first time in his presidency: Because many Republicans were unwilling to vote to raise the federal debt ceiling, the president had no choice but to work with the Democrats on this must-pass legislation. In anticipation, congressional Democrats had lengthy debates over what they should "wish for" in return for giving Trump the 18-month debt-ceiling extension his Treasury Department wanted. Should they demand funding for key programs on the chopping block? Maybe an end to anti-Obamacare moves by the administration?
Of course, some Democrats believed that the party should stand by its Obama-era position and support a "clean" debt-ceiling bill — i.e., free of any extraneous provisions. Straying from that position, they worried, would mean that a future Democratic president might have to make unacceptable concessions to a future GOP Congress. Others believed (and still do) that the best deal would be to abolish the debt ceiling altogether.
In the midst of this mélange of opinions, Schumer and Pelosi had a powerful insight: Given that congressional Republicans are unwilling to check Trump’s worst excesses, Democrats need a special strategy to deal with a particularly reckless president. So the Democratic leaders negotiated for the legislative equivalent of “more wishes.” Rather than bargaining for specific concessions now in exchange for a long-term debt-ceiling extension, they sought an extension that was very short-term — about 90 days. In this way, they required Trump to come back to them soon for more negotiations. If, in future such showdowns, they continue to permit only short-term extensions, they will wind up with more opportunities to check Trump’s excesses and extract concessions from him.
As a result, the president would have to face — and win votes from — Democrats three or four more times before the 2018 elections. At each such juncture, Democrats would be needed to pass this legislation and would again have a device to force Trump to bargain. No wonder Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are so mad: They wanted to relegate congressional Democrats to irrelevancy for the remainder of the Congress and keep Trump talking only to Republicans. Schumer and Pelosi’s bargain denied the GOP congressional leaders this objective.
Of course, a wish for more wishes is not an end itself. Next time, Democrats have to find a way to move Trump on one or more key policy points. They also have to continue to keep this “legislative leash” short, and use their recurring “dates with Donald” to stop or roll back the worst of his actions if they cannot do so through other means (such as passing a stand-alone Dream Act). They have won a recurring seat at the table — no small feat given their minority status. Now, they have to show what they can do with it. (And near the end of Trump’s term, they should use this leverage to abolish the debt ceiling altogether: After using this weapon for the next 3½ years, they should eliminate it from ever being used again.)
The Schumer-Pelosi strategy is not without risks. Donald “Art of the Deal” Trump is a horrible negotiator but a superb spinner of negotiations: More times at the table with Trump means more times he may succeed at claiming victory. A pattern of regular and successful dealings could bolster Trump’s image as a “reasonable” president who is getting things done.
Moreover, by curtailing partisan strife over the debt limit, government funding and disaster relief this month, the deal does clear away some “must do” items in line before tax reform (though many others remain) — and may even create legislative calendar time for the GOP to take another run at repealing Obamacare this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. The first job of the opposition party is to oppose: Winning leverage with Trump for future agreements is cold comfort if it facilitates other aspects of Trump’s agenda.
Ultimately, however, I know firsthand — having directed the Senate Democratic leadership staff after our drubbing in 1994 — that there can be no wins for the minority in Congress without taking some chances. When you cannot win with numbers, you need to win with guile and instinct. The Schumer-Pelosi strategy has risks. But in creating a mechanism to require Trump to repeatedly seek Democratic support for must-pass legislation, Schumer and Pelosi have gotten themselves previously unimaginable future leverage. That’s legislative genius, even without a genie.