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Trump Backs Democrats’ Debt Limit Proposal Against GOP Urging

Some Republicans shocked by Trump’s decision, few critical

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at a news conference Wednesday in which he announced the deal struck by President Donald Trump and Democratic leaders on the debt ceiling. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at a news conference Wednesday in which he announced the deal struck by President Donald Trump and Democratic leaders on the debt ceiling. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

“Oh, boy.”

That was House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodger’s reaction when she heard President Donald Trump backed the Democrats’ request for a three-month debt limit extension, against his own party leadership’s urging.

GOP leaders had internally been discussing a debt limit increase that would extend into 2018, McMorris Rogers confirmed. Senate leaders had been planning to attach it to a Hurricane Harvey relief supplemental appropriations package that the House passed Wednesday.

They had communicated that to Trump. But during a White House meeting with Republican and Democratic congressional leaders, Trump decided to instead back a three-month debt-limit extension and a three-month continuing resolution attached to the Harvey aid measure.

Trump said the CR and debt limit extensions will run to Dec. 15 and suggested additional money could be added to the hurricane relief portion of the package.

“Everyone is in favor, obviously, of taking care of that situation,” the president said. “So we all very much agree.”

Not really ‘all’

“All” was an overstatement.

A few hours before the White House meeting, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi had floated the three-month debt limit extension as something that Democrats would support.

They carried their position into the meeting with Trump. But Speaker Paul D. Ryan, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin argued for a longer-term debt ceiling increase, a source with knowledge of the meeting said.

Specifically, Republican leaders pushed for an 18-month debt limit hike, then floated six months, according to an aide briefed on the meeting. After Pelosi and Schumer dismissed those offers, Trump agreed to the 3-month increase that Democrats put on the table, the aide said.

McConnell, speaking at a news conference a few hours after the White House meeting, did not directly criticize the president’s decision but made it clear he was not a party to the agreement.

“The president and the Senate and House Democratic leadership agreed to a three-month continuing resolution and a debt ceiling into December,” the Kentucky Republican said.

However, McConnell said he will bring the package up for a vote in the Senate and he will back it.

As to what Trump was thinking when he made the decision to back the Democrats’ proposal, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn offered this guess: “I’m assuming that what he wanted to do is basically clear the deck so we can move on to taxes and other issues.”

Pelosi downplayed the notion that Trump sided with Democrats over Republicans, saying, “It wasn’t really that kind of dynamic.”

Schumer, however, was more open about the deal being a win for Democrats.

“I’m sure it wasn’t an economic choice to have it expire right after the November ’18 elections, so the bottom line is the president listened to the arguments,” Schumer said. “We think we made a very reasonable and strong argument, and to his credit, he went with the better argument.”

DACA leverage

Ryan had yet to comment on the deal at press time, but during a news conference before the Trump meeting, he panned the Democrats’ three-month offer as “unworkable,” accusing Schumer and Pelosi of “playing politics with the debt ceiling.”

The Wisconsin Republican was referring to the notion that Democrats might use a new December debt ceiling deadline to leverage other policy extractions, namely passage of legislation that would provide permanent legal status, and eventually a path to citizenship, for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, who meet certain conditions.

“We’ll see,” Pelosi said.

The California Democrat said her caucus members want to pass the so-called DREAM Act to provide some certainty to undocumented immigrants who would have been covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that Trump on Tuesday decided to phase out.

Trump told congressional leaders he would be willing to back a bill that included the DREAM Act in it, Pelosi said, but he noted he wants other things to be part of the measure, though he didn’t specify what.

“He said, ‘If you pass it, I’ll sign it,’” she said.

Trump effectively confirmed that.

“Chuck and Nancy would like to see something happen, and so do I,” he said, referring to Schumer and Pelosi. “And I said if we can get something to happen, we’re going to sign it and we’re going to make a lot of happy people.”

Democrats may also be able to leverage their likely needed votes in December for another debt ceiling increase for other fiscal priorities, such as a deal to raise the sequester spending caps and policy riders in the expected omnibus appropriations measure.

“It certainly gives them more leverage in budget negotiations if the debt also has to be raised once again,” Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Charlie Dent said.

Dent, co-chairman of the moderate Tuesday Group, said he would’ve preferred a longer debt limit extension but that he can back the package punting the increase and the CR until December.  

Shocked but not critical

Trump’s decision to buck GOP leaders’ wishes and give in to the Democrats’ demands shocked many congressional Republicans. Few were willing to directly criticize Trump for his decision.

“Democrats got exactly what they wanted,” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said. “It is for a three-month CR, three-month debt ceiling to come due a few days before Christmas, which gives them the greatest leverage in the world to get exactly what they want.”

The North Carolina Republican said the package wasn’t the best option and he won’t back it, but he stopped short of pointing any blame at Trump.

“He wasn’t left with a lot of good options,” Meadows said.

Meadows’ group of 36 hard-line conservatives had not supported any length of a so-called clean debt limit increase. The Freedom Caucus and the larger conservative Republican Study Committee had been pushing for the debt ceiling to be tied to policy changes to rein in government spending.

RSC Chairman Mark Walker said his impulse is to not back Trump’s deal. He even cautioned leadership on Monday that the president might agree to a big package, unpalatable to conservatives, in the interest of getting the issue off his plate.

“I addressed that with leadership yesterday as a potential concern as they tried to negotiate,” Walker said. “I understand that he’s trying to get all this done but it does cause me some pause.”

Despite the concerns, House Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry expressed confidence that the measure can pass the House with a majority of Republicans supporting it.

“In the broader interest of raising the debt ceiling, a longer time period gives the markets more certainty,” the North Carolina Republican said. “But look, the White House and the president made a decision. And I think we can get this done very quickly with very little drama.”

John T. Bennett, Niels Lesniewski and Joe Williams contributed to this report.