President Trump and congressional Republicans return to work this week facing enormous pressure to achieve major policy victories and carry out such basic acts of governance as providing disaster relief in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, avoiding a default on the nation’s debt and keeping federal agencies open.
So far, there is little evidence of progress.
On Sunday, a proposal from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to attach recovery aid to legislation raising the nation’s borrowing limit quickly drew objections from conservative lawmakers seeking spending cuts.
And Trump and the White House have only recently engaged with congressional leaders, who must navigate the demands of conservatives but also those of Democrats, who have the votes to derail most bills in the Senate.
Republicans are scheduled to discuss tax cuts at the White House on Tuesday, Trump’s first direct engagement with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell since early August, when the president criticized the Kentucky Republican on Twitter and in an expletive-laden phone call. On Wednesday, Trump will meet with leaders of both parties — his first face-to-face meeting with top Democrats since January.
Even before Hurricane Harvey swept across southeastern Texas, the White House and lawmakers faced a series of dire deadlines likely to establish September as the busiest and most challenging month so far in the Trump presidency.
Among the most pivotal decisions is how to avoid a federal default when the government reaches its borrowing limit at the end of the month. Failure to raise the debt ceiling could plunge financial markets and the economy into turmoil.
Lawmakers and the White House also must extend government spending beyond September to avert a federal shutdown. And deadlines to reauthorize a flood insurance program and extend health insurance for low-income children also loom before the end of the month.
Approving a Harvey aid package and beginning talks toward the GOP’s top legislative priority — an overhaul of the tax system — add to the pressure.
Mnuchin’s revelation Sunday on Fox News that Trump hopes to include disaster aid in debt-ceiling legislation provoked conservative lawmakers who have pushed for spending cuts in exchange for their support for raising the debt limit. These lawmakers were already signaling plans for a rebellion over the entire September agenda if leaders don’t agree to major cuts and changes to expensive federal programs such as Medicaid.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, who had previously warned against attaching a debt-limit increase to Harvey aid, accused Mnuchin on Sunday of reneging on his prior rhetoric.
“I find it interesting that the secretary has long called for a clean debt ceiling and now suggests that we attach something to the debt ceiling vote,” Meadows said. “There should be a clean bill; it’s called the Hurricane Harvey relief bill.”
The leader of the Republican Study Committee, another group of House conservatives, also raised pointed objections Sunday. Rep. Mark Walker (N.C.) said in a statement that any debt ceiling increase "should be paired with significant fiscal and structural reforms" and that the need for Harvey aid did not remove that imperative.
“Our obligation is to assist those impacted by this great flood but it’s past time the swamp waters in D.C. begin receding as well,” Walker said. “That starts with being both compassionate and fiscally responsible. These two principles are not at odds.”
All of it comes at a politically perilous time for Trump, the first new president in 40 years to fail to secure a major legislative victory during his first seven months in office. Although Trump remains popular with core supporters, his overall approval rating has hovered below 40 percent as he has inflamed opponents with his handling of the violent protests in Charlottesville, his pardon of controversial former sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona and his plans to scale back protections for undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children.
Trump's relationships with lawmakers have also deteriorated over the summer. He has lashed out publicly against several Republicans, including McConnell, whom the president blamed for the party's dramatic failure to fulfill a major campaign promise of the past seven years: repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act.
Some White House officials say they are hoping they can avoid the adversarial tone with lawmakers that Trump has used for months, seeking to cut deals over the debt ceiling and spending. There is also widespread agreement about fast-tracking a hurricane relief package — and the White House has even reached out to Democrats, a new tactic after months of clashes.
How to do so remains a sticking point, given the contrasting position of conservative Republicans.
Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said in an interview that the administration’s rapid response to Harvey has intensified the workload. But he said the White House has seen many of the other challenges coming for months. Congress, he said, waited too long to act on any of them.
“Does Congress have a tendency to wait until the last minute? Yes,” said Mulvaney, a former member of Congress who was often involved in last-minute budget fights. “It’s a challenge but it is not a surprise.”
In an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) offered some clues to how much decision-making still lies ahead, noting that tying Harvey aid to a debt-ceiling or spending bill is “one way to do it” and adding, “I think that’s something that will be decided in the next few days.”
Blunt also noted Congress's role as a coequal branch of government, perhaps signaling the difficult negotiations to come. "For the Congress to understand fully and the country to understand that these are two separate branches of government, is a good thing," he said.
If Congress doesn’t pass a bill to authorize spending past September, it will lead to a partial shutdown that closes national parks, sends close to 1 million federal employees home without pay and suspends a number of federal services indefinitely.
Similarly, failing to authorize money for the response to Harvey could freeze recovery assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to thousands of people in Texas and Louisiana.
And if Congress doesn’t raise the debt ceiling, the Treasury Department could fall behind on its payments to creditors, leading to a stock market crash and a surge in interest rates.
Congressional leaders are planning a number of votes in September. The House plans to vote as soon as this week on a bill to authorize $5.95 billion in emergency funds to respond to the flooding caused by Harvey.
Many House and Senate lawmakers have signaled support for the bill, but conservatives have warned against adding anything else to the legislation that would force them to vote against Harvey relief money.
“You don’t want to look like you’re blackmailing people into voting for a debt-ceiling bill or [a spending] bill by using Harvey,” said Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), a veteran GOP legislator and former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “If it’s part of a larger agreement and everybody’s fine with that, well, then that’s okay. But don’t try to exploit a disaster for political purposes. I think it always gets you in trouble.”
Added Walker, "To expect that we're just going to roll over for six or seven years in a row — if you're running as someone who's concerned about how taxpayers' dollars are spent, at some point, there has to be a long-term game plan."
Legislation to deliver the initial $7.85 billion in Harvey relief requested by the Trump administration was introduced in the House on Sunday. That bill does not include a debt-ceiling increase, although several GOP aides said that it could be attached later — probably in the Senate.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) issued a statement that pledged “help is coming” for Harvey victims but did not mention the debt-ceiling request.
"The president has made clear Texas and Louisiana will have the resources they need, and this package is our first step of keeping that promise," Ryan said.
In the second week of September, House lawmakers are hoping to vote on a bill that would fund operations for the entire government from October until sometime in December. That bill is necessary to prevent a partial government shutdown on Oct. 1.
Democrats have said it will be up to Republicans to present a plan to raise the debt limit. Several have expressed openness to negotiating on the White House’s tax plan, while on the spending bill they have vowed to oppose any new spending for a border wall or cuts to Planned Parenthood or other liberal priorities. If they pull their support, Democrats could block the spending bill in the Senate, where it requires a 60-vote majority and Republicans control 52 seats.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Sunday that raising the debt limit and providing federal aid for Harvey victims are “important issues and Democrats want to work to do both.”
“Given the interplay between all the issues Congress must tackle in September, Democrats and Republicans must discuss all the issues together and come up with a bipartisan consensus,” they said in a joint statement.
How GOP leaders balance Democratic demands with those of conservatives remains uncertain. One plan is to write the spending bill in a way that continues funding the government at existing levels and doesn’t cut programs or contain new money for construction of a border wall. And Trump appears to have diverted an immediate confrontation over wall funding by announcing last week that he would not force a shutdown over the issue but instead would take it up later this fall.
Even with the September agenda piling up, Trump will fly to North Dakota on Wednesday to continue courting voters to support his plan for sweeping tax cuts, an idea that has energized many Republicans and could help him win over some reluctant members in the coming weeks.
His tax-cut focus has drawn support from many Republicans, but some are still demanding spending cuts and other changes before they will support the September agenda. Meadows, for instance, has said he will support a debt-ceiling bill only if it guarantees additional spending cuts. In addition, the White House must resurrect its plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act, he said.
"If they accomplish all of that, I think they'll get an A-plus for the month, and have avoided a disastrous September," Meadows said. "Actually, even if they can get through September with a C grade, October and November will certainly be a little bit easier flying."
Conversely, Meadows added, an end-of-month deal combining all of the outstanding items into one package that ignores conservative concerns would be “disastrous.”
The White House appears to understand the power of the Freedom Caucus to disrupt the month. On Thursday, Meadows held a fundraiser in North Carolina. One of the star attendees at the event was Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner.