Conservative lawmakers voiced their opposition to President Trump’s deal with Democratic congressional leaders, arguing the three-month government spending bill that also raises the debt ceiling should not be passed because it does not include federal spending cuts.
The chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee objected to the agreement in a letter to House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), while Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) proposed an amendment to pass relief for Hurricane Harvey victims as a stand-alone bill in the upper chamber, decoupled from debates over federal spending and the debt ceiling.
The moves came just as news broke that Trump and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) are working on a separate deal that would repeal the debt ceiling by December, another betrayal by the president that would erase one of the few points of leverage conservatives have to extract spending cuts during high-stakes fiscal debates.
Opponents failed to derail the package combining $15.25 billion in Harvey aid with a temporary debt-ceiling hike and funding to keep the government open until Dec. 8. The Senate passed it on Thursday afternoon, sending it back to the House for final approval.
Conservative lawmakers did their best before the vote Thursday to rally support for their view.
“Yesterday we saw Washington’s swamp continue to rise: Chuck Schumer wrote the art of the steal by taking hurricane relief hostage to guarantee a December showdown that favors Democratic spending priorities,” Sasse said in a statement.
“My legislation would let Congress send a disaster-relief bill to the President’s desk so we can help Americans in need right now and then get to work tackling the disorder in our fiscal house,” he stated.
RSC chairman Mark Walker (R-N.C.) said the deal would “increase borrowing authority of the government while irresponsibly ignoring the urgency of reforms.”
“Worse yet is attaching the debt limit to legislation that continues the status quo or even worsens the trajectory on spending, such as the deal announced yesterday,” he wrote to Ryan.
The situation facing conservatives represents a marked turnaround from earlier this year, when the typically powerful GOP faction thought they had a reliable ally in the president.
On Wednesday, however, Trump sent the hard right a new message: Your enemy’s enemy is not necessarily your friend.
The president's quick embrace of a legislative strategy for a must-pass disaster relief bill proposed by the top Democratic leaders, Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), sets the stage for a grand negotiation later this year that will hand leverage to the minority and frustrate the majority's governing ambitions.
If history is any guide, that likely includes any hopes conservatives had for ambitious spending cutbacks and a thorough recalibration of the federal government’s size and scope.
Outwardly, key conservative leaders blamed Ryan and McConnell (Ky.) for the concessions — extending the federal debt ceiling for only three months, allowing Democrats to use the threat of a government default to extract policy concessions on a spending bill that also must pass in mid-December.
“Let’s be clear,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, told reporters Wednesday. “There was not a conservative option on the debt ceiling that was offered to the president.”
Both Freedom Caucus and Republican Study Committee members appear poised to send a message later this week by voting against the debt-and-spending deal Trump agreed to — showing they are willing not only to defy Trump, but also to risk political attacks for opposing relief for hurricane victims. If they deny the bill a majority of Republican votes, they will only add to the embarrassment for party leaders already reeling at the pact between Trump and Democrats.
In pockets of the conservative media, knives came out for Ryan, not the president. Trump, Fox Business host Lou Dobbs pronounced Wednesday, "not only took RINO Ryan to the woodshed, but eliminated any need for any Republican to ever pretend again that Ryan is a real Republican in any way."
But others openly wrestled with the reality that Trump — a political outsider most of them had eagerly embraced — would ultimately prove to be an unreliable partner in battles for their most important goals.
“Dealmaking to what end?” asked Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), the rare Freedom Caucuser who routinely criticizes Trump. “Does it advance or pull away from the bias that you believe in terms of what direction the government ought to go? I think all of us as taxpayers need to be very skeptical of deals for the sake of deals.”
At a Thursday morning appearance at a Washington event hosted by the New York Times, Ryan said he viewed Trump’s decision in a larger context than the Washington circus: “He wanted to make sure that in this moment of national crisis, where our country is getting hit by two horrible hurricanes, he wanted to have a bipartisan response and not a food fight on the timing of the debt limit attached to this bill.”
Ryan said he would have preferred a longer debt deal for the sake of the financial sector — “I just don’t think it’s good for the credit markets to have these short-term debt extensions” — evincing the kind of Wall Street-over-Main Street logic that has vexed the hard right for years.
For the Freedom Caucus, Wednesday’s betrayal came weeks after their most important White House ally, chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, left the Trump administration and rekindled his rear-guard war on the establishment. Trump’s decision to side with Democrats fits with a right-wing narrative that his administration is under internal siege from “globalist” advisers with a moderate agenda.
Meadows met Monday with Bannon to plot the months ahead, and on Wednesday night he warned Ryan in a private meeting that a failure to enact conservative priorities could imperil his speakership.
That message came after Freedom Caucus members fumed publicly throughout the day about how leaders had set them up for failure. “The point is, we should have had a plan a long time ago,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).
There is no sign that Trump’s Wednesday concession marks a broader legislative pivot. But the legislative reality for the GOP’s hard right is brutal: Every Democratic entreaty the president accepts erodes the conservative bloc’s power, which is rooted in its ability to push Republican-only initiatives — like this year’s health-care effort and the coming tax overhaul effort — further to the right.
For a broader group of conservatives, Trump’s decision to side with Pelosi and Schumer over Republican leaders came simply as a shock that forced them to come to terms with the man in whom they had invested their political fortunes.
Trump’s rejection of the long-term provision Ryan and McConnell wanted mirrored their own displeasure with the prospect of swallowing a lengthy debt-ceiling increase attached not to a package of spending reforms but instead to billions of dollars charged to the national credit card. But he did so by empowering Democrats, not conservatives, in the service of projecting bipartisanship rather than principle.
“It’s unsettling,” said Walker (R-N.C.). “I know it is for us as a conference; I can only imagine what it is for leadership.”