When a reporter suggested that Trump is one of those Republicans, Johnson flashed a pained smile and said, “Precisely.”
The mammoth spending deal provides another stark indication of the Republican Party’s near-total capitulation to Trump, who pays little mind to the goals of fiscal austerity that animated the GOP establishment and its tea party wing during years of dramatic fiscal standoffs with President Barack Obama.
But as Trump rallied the GOP to defend him from Wednesday’s House impeachment vote, the Republican drumbeat on the looming threats of debt and deficits has faded — replaced with an increasing emphasis on grievance politics, tax cuts and revamping the judiciary.
“The budget deficits hawks? That went out the window with the tax cuts they passed last time around,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said. “They use the budget deficit as a political sword when they’re in the minority — but it disappears when they’re in the majority.”
The Democratic-controlled House easily passed the sprawling deal on Tuesday as two separate bills, following negotiations led by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and top appropriators from the House and Senate.
The Republican-controlled Senate voted Thursday before recessing until the new year. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) threw his support behind the deal, as did the White House.
The package approved Thursday consisted of two bills — one focused on GOP national security priorities including the Pentagon, the other on domestic agencies dear to Democrats such as the Department of Health and Human Services. The former passed by 81 to 11, and the latter was approved 71 to 23.
McConnell and other veteran Senate Republicans cast the spending deal as imperfect but necessary since it includes funding for the military and averted a potential government shutdown on Friday.
“It’s the art of what is timely and possible,” Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said. He called a clash with Trump on spending “almost impossible given the circumstances we face, from [impeachment] to everything else.”
Roberts, the retiring chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, added, “Whether it’s this or the farm bill,” with its $867 billion price tag, “when you’re trying to count votes and get something done, you become pragmatic.”
While the 2,313-page package includes some GOP planks — such as a $22 billion increase in Pentagon funding, sustained funding for border-wall projects and the repeal of several taxes associated with Obama’s health-care law — it is also full of Democratic requests, including money for gun violence research, environmental funding and a 3.1 percent pay raise for civilian federal employees.
In addition, the bill reauthorizes the Export-Import Bank — a longtime target of conservative grousing about federal power — and stabilizes pensions for tens of thousands of miners who were on the verge of losing their benefits.
All told, the agreement could add more than $500 billion to the deficit over the next decade, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. The deficit — or gap between federal government spending and tax revenue — is expected to eclipse $1 trillion this year.
And the deal comes just days after Congress passed another $738 billion spending agreement brokered with the Trump White House, creating a Space Force as the sixth branch of the military and guaranteeing 12 weeks of paid parental leave for federal workers — a policy that once would have been anathema to conservative activists and a likely cause of revolt.
On Monday, the Republican National Committee hailed that agreement as a “strong deal on defense and parental leave” and part of a “very good week” for the president.
The GOP’s shelving of its long-standing priorities has extended to trade as Republicans offered only scattered opposition to Trump’s revised North American trade deal despite its endorsements from labor groups and its nixing of protections for drug companies.
Across the right — from conservative think tanks to outside advocacy organizations to hard-line right-wing websites — ultimatums about cuts and rallies at the Capitol are nonexistent. Fears that support for a federal spending spree could incite a primary challenge have fizzled.
Democrats and some conservative Republicans see rampant hypocrisy in this turn of events, particularly after Republicans made shrinking the size of government a central pillar of their agenda during the Obama years.
“Conservatives will someday face the horrible truth” that Trump gave them “bigger government and erosion of the principles and values they once claimed to cherish,” Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.), who left the GOP in July, tweeted on Tuesday, hours after the House vote on the spending deal.
For now, most conservatives, such as Johnson, have lamented how their party has slipped away from its mooring on spending but they have pinned the blame more on leaders in Congress than on Trump — underscoring how he has escaped paying a political price for the expansion of government under his watch.
“Unfortunately, when it comes to government spending, you get a bipartisan coalition that is bankrupting the country,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who once led a conservative confrontation of federal spending on health care that sparked a 17-day government shutdown in 2013.
Rather than Trump, Cruz directed his ire toward unnamed Republican appropriators who cut the deal with Democrats.
“Most Republicans and Democrats are complicit,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a Trump ally who was elected as part of 2010’s wave of tea party conservatives.
But when asked twice about the president’s role in shepherding the spending increases, Paul declined to address Trump and criticized “big-government Republicans.”
Although Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) was integral in the talks, the Trump administration was involved at every step, with Mnuchin working with Shelby and House Democrats.
Shelby argued this week that the deal was an understandable compromise because of the lack of interest of both parties in addressing long-term federal spending programs such as Medicare and Social Security, which he called the “real culprit” for the nation’s fiscal health.
“We owe a lot of money, but until Congress and the American people decide to do something about entitlements, we could never balance the budget or rein in spending in a profound way on discretionary spending,” Shelby said.
Republicans have made scant progress in securing changes to Medicare and Social Security in recent years, including when the GOP held the majorities in both congressional chambers during Trump’s first two years in office. Even though then-House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) rose to fame as a champion for entitlement restructuring, neither he nor Trump sought to tackle the issue.
Trump’s initial budgets in 2017 and 2018 proposed cutting more than $3 trillion over 10 years, a contraction that would have severely ratcheted back spending across dozens of programs while completely reshaping government assistance to the poor.
White House officials walked a tightrope with those proposed budgets, however, since Trump insisted that they could not cut retirement benefits for Social Security or health benefits for Medicare — consistent with his 2016 campaign platform, which avoided calls for sweeping changes to those programs.
Trump’s last budget released in March 2019, by contrast, included massive rollbacks of programs including Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security Disability Insurance, as well as cuts to the Special Olympics, Meals on Wheels and programs related to autism and other developmental disabilities. But with Democrats in control in the House, those proposals went nowhere from the start. Trump has suggested he would support broad cuts if he wins a second term.
The administration has been more aggressive in pursuing deregulatory policies favored by business interests through the Office of Management and Budget — seeking to curb spending through rules during divided government. Acting White House budget director Russell T. Vought, a former congressional staffer with links to conservative leaders, has driven those efforts.
The closest Republicans have come to addressing long-term federal spending on Medicare and Social Security came nearly a decade ago, when Obama and then-House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) negotiated a possible “grand bargain” on fiscal issues that was set to include a mix of tax increases and spending reductions before the discussions fell apart.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) — who tapped Ryan as his running mate during the 2012 presidential campaign — said this week that Republicans must work to restart similar talks on those programs and has called for setting up a “bipartisan, bicameral rescue committee” that would be tasked with crafting an agreement.
Romney said “extremely low interest rates” and the strength of the economy have kept some Republicans from calling for cuts, but said the “focus has to be on reining in the deficit to help future generations.”
Former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford (R) said Romney may find it difficult to generate enthusiasm for such discussions. Sanford launched a long-shot primary challenge against Trump earlier this year, but failed to gain traction before dropping out last month.
“It’s pretty tragic,” Sanford said. “The president is leading us in the wrong direction and that was the premise for my short-lived campaign. I thought there was still a market for conservatism that would go after the debt and deficits.”
Sanford added, “I thought my conversations with Republicans years ago about those issues were real. I’m not sure anymore if they were.”
Erica Werner contributed to this report.