President Trump confounded leaders from his own party on Wednesday by siding with Democrats on plans to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling, upending negotiations on a variety of crucial policy areas in the fall and further damaging his relationships with Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Trump made his position clear at a White House meeting with congressional leaders, agreeing with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on plans for a three-month bill to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling for the same amount of time.
“We had a very good meeting with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer,” Trump told reporters Wednesday on Air Force One while traveling to North Dakota. “We agreed to a three-month extension on debt ceiling, which they consider to be sacred — very important — always we’ll agree on debt ceiling automatically because of the importance of it.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he would add provisions extending government funding and the debt limit through mid-December to legislation passed by the House on Wednesday to provide $7.85 billion in Hurricane Harvey relief.
“The president agreed with Sen. Schumer and Congresswoman Pelosi to do a three-month [funding extension] and a debt ceiling into December, and that’s what I will be offering based on the president’s decision, to the bill. And we’ll try to get 60 votes and move forward,” McConnell told reporters Wednesday afternoon. “The president can speak for himself, but his feeling was that we needed to come together to not create a picture of divisiveness at a time of genuine national crisis. And that was the rationale.”
The president’s decision came barely an hour after House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) panned the idea of a brief debt hike, accusing Democrats of “playing politics” with much needed aid for Hurricane Harvey victims.
“Let’s just think about this: We’ve got all this devastation in Texas. We’ve got another unprecedented hurricane about to hit Florida, and they want to play politics with the debt ceiling?,” Ryan told reporters. “I think that’s ridiculous and disgraceful that they want to play politics with the debt ceiling at this moment when we have fellow citizens in need, to respond to these hurricanes so we do not strand them.”
Trump, apparently, disagreed.
“We essentially came to a deal, and I think the deal will be very good,” he said. “We had a very, very cordial and professional meeting.”
At the White House, Republican leaders pushed for an 18-month debt-limit hike, then floated doing a six-month extension, according to two aides briefed on the meeting. But Pelosi and Schumer dismissed the six-month proposal, and Trump then agreed to the three-month hike that Democrats put on the table.
Democrats believe pushing the debt-limit debate into December would increase their leverage on Republicans to secure stabilization funds for health-care markets and resolve the legal status of undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, known as “dreamers.”
“The nation can breathe a sigh of relief. We’ve avoided default, we’ve avoided a government shutdown — both of which would have caused damage far into the future,” Schumer told reporters after the meeting.
“I think the nation is the one that benefited from today’s action. … It’s for the good of the nation that this happened,” he said.
Not all Democrats were so thrilled with the deal. Some were upset it did not include protections for dreamers after Trump canceled a program that allows them to stay in the United States without fear of deportation.
“So Trump attacks our dreamers, and the next day the Democrats walk in there and say, ‘Oh let’s just have a nice timeout,’ while they’re all suffering?” fumed Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), moments after the deal was made public. “That is what is wrong with Democrats. They don’t stand up.”
Schumer said he was not finished advocating for dreamers.
“This is not a trade-off for us. This is a very important issue that we’re going to fight hard for until we get it done. … We believe if we keep up the fight, we will succeed,” he said.
An agreement to fund the government through December accomplishes an important goal for Trump and his allies, who have long sought a showdown with Democrats over the $1.6 billion he wants to start building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. White House officials last week recognized that they were unable to have that fight with Democrats now, given the mass of deadlines facing Congress in September, but they planned to regroup in December with allies and mobilize their base of supporters.
Trump has threatened to shut down the government if Congress doesn’t agree to fund the wall, and he would be in a better position to use that threat in December than September, when Congress must avert a debt default and take care of other key priorities.
Still, by agreeing to also suspend the debt ceiling until Dec. 15, Trump has improved Democrats’ position in upcoming negotiations.
The agreement would force Congress to vote on the debt ceiling by December 15, likely prohibiting the Treasury Department – for the first time – from using emergency steps to delay a default. Typically, Treasury can use emergency steps to avoid default for several months past any debt ceiling deadline, but the agreement Schumer reached with Trump at the White House would force another vote on the debt ceiling by December 15.
The short-term extensions for both the debt ceiling and government funding are also expected to further cloud the prospects for enacting major tax cuts, Trump’s top domestic priority at the moment. They effectively mean spending and budget fights will continue for months, just as the GOP was hoping to coalesce around a plan to cut taxes.
Some Senate Republicans wanted the debt ceiling to be suspended for 18 months so it wouldn’t loom over them before next year’s midterm elections. Their hopes were disappointed Wednesday.
The White House meeting took place just as the House approved a $7.85 billion aid package for victims of Hurricane Harvey, its first major order of business following the August recess and Congress’s first step toward fulfilling Trump’s promise of relief for South Texas.
The measure providing $7.4 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and $450 million for a disaster loan program for small businesses passed 419-3 with 12 representatives not voting. Reps. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) voted no. It now moves to the Senate, where leaders plan to hold a vote by the end of the week.
Emergency relief is one of at least half a dozen crucial items on Congress’s agenda this month. Lawmakers are under pressure not only to avoid a government shutdown and a U.S. debt default but also to reauthorize critical programs like the Federal Aviation Administration and extend funds for health insurance for about 9 million children.
Conservatives worry that Democrats plan to demand increased spending on domestic priorities, like education and low-income assistance, in exchange for their votes on must-pass priorities.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, was among those who warned that Democrats’ short-term debt limit request could threaten GOP efforts to cut spending.
“Obviously getting a [continuing resolution] and the debt ceiling to not come due at the same time would be the most prudent fiscal decision we could make,” Meadows told reporters.
The Freedom Caucus met Tuesday evening but did not adopt an official position to oppose an aid bill for Hurricane Harvey victims if it includes an increase in the federal debt limit. The group did adopt a position for a favored approach to reforming the debt ceiling: raising it initially, but including a federal spending cap pegged to a fixed percentage of the gross domestic product that would decrease over time.
In a sign that steps must be taken to appease skeptical House Republicans, a key Houston-area lawmaker floated a proposal that would attach language proposing a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget to the Republican budget resolution — a separate piece of legislation that could see a House vote this month.
Rep. John Abney Culberson (R-Tex.), whose west Houston district has been devastated by flooding, said that conservatives could vote for a debt-limit increase in good conscience if they know a major spending reform is in the offing.
“Who could be opposed to a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution?” he said. “The U.S. cannot default on our debt — that’s just not acceptable. This is a solution that will work.”
While he said his proposal would offer a “clear path” to a constitutional amendment, the process set out under Article V of the Constitution would ultimately require ratification from three-fourths of states — a tall order, to say the least.
Republican leaders said the House would not leave Washington until Harvey relief is passed, leaving open the possibility of Saturday votes. “We will not leave until we get this done,” Ryan said.
Damian Paletta and Paul Kane contributed to this story.