President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s tête-à-tête on Tuesday — after a summer of sniping between the two — lifted Republican hopes that the GOP was finally back in sync ahead of a brutal fall of fiscal deadlines.
Not 24 hours later, the president cut a deal with Democrats on a short-term debt ceiling increase opposed by McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan. Just Wednesday morning, in fact, Ryan had scoffed at the Democratic offer that Trump accepted minutes later.
In the aftermath, Republicans seethed privately and distanced themselves publicly from the deal. They were left to hope that Trump’s collaboration with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was a temporary dalliance, and not the new MO for the president.
“Obviously, it would have been better not to make us vote repeatedly on the debt ceiling. But I wasn’t surprised,” sighed Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.). “I think Mitch would rather have done it differently, but it’s not worth having a big old fight over.”
“A three-month debt ceiling? Why not do a daily debt ceiling?” cracked Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho). “He’s the best deal-maker ever. Don’t you know? I mean, he’s got a book out!”
Trump’s deal with Democrats doesn’t appear to help Republicans at all. While it averts a fall government shutdown and a default on the nation’s debt until at least December, it also emboldens Democrats to push for immigration changes or spending priorities without giving an inch to the right.
Congress will likely have to strike a major bipartisan fiscal deal in December to raise the debt ceiling long term and keep the government open for the remainder of fiscal 2018. And Republican lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol complained Wednesday that Trump probably just undercut leadership in those future negotiations, making it even harder for them to secure legislative wins.
In a brief interview on Wednesday, McConnell said his meeting with Trump a day earlier was “cordial.” And though he made clear to reporters that this was Trump’s deal — not his and Ryan’s — he said he would nevertheless support it.
McConnell also insisted that things have settled down after Trump’s tirade of tweets criticizing the GOP leader in August over his stewardship of the chamber and singling out some of his Republican members.
“It’s fine,” McConnell said of his relationship with Trump. “Everything’s fine.”
His Democratic counterpart was far more upbeat.
“Today was a good day, in a generally very partisan town,” Schumer said. The minority leader said Trump was presented with a GOP deal and a Democratic one, and he “went with the better argument.”
To conservatives, Trump’s turn toward the Democratic leaders pointed to a further fracturing of the GOP on fiscal issues — on the heels of its split over Trump’s decision to end protections for some young immigrants. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) declared the “Pelosi-Schumer-Trump” deal simply “bad” — but others fretted about a new, more liberal-leaning dynamic.
“It’s just a betrayal of everything we’ve been talking about for years as Republicans,” said former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who headed the Heritage Foundation and is still an influential conservative leader. “What the president’s going to find is … if they bet on Democratic votes they better plan on [giving up] a lot more than they think they’re going to.”
Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina, the Republican Study Committee Chairman, said he was “taken aback” by the deal and seemed blindsided by the president’s decision.
“It’s unsettling,” Walker said. “It’s hard for the conference; I can only imagine what it is for leadership.”
On Wednesday morning, Ryan called the deal floated by Democrats to fund the government and lift the debt ceiling through mid-December as part of a relief package for Hurricane Harvey victims “disgraceful.” Expecting cover from Trump on their insistence to extend the debt ceiling much longer, Ryan and McConnell instead were abandoned.
Just the night before, Ryan and his leadership team were told by White House officials that Trump would publicly endorse their plan to pair Harvey emergency funding bill with an 18-month debt ceiling hike. They were optimistic his support would help secure more Republican votes.
Only, Trump went rogue. White House officials apologized to congressional leaders after the meeting, according to a GOP source on Capitol Hill. But the damage was done.
“It doesn’t help our leadership to try to hold us Republicans together on anything when they know the president will chop them off at the knees,” said a House Republican lawmaker allied with Ryan. “Trump has got to start caring more about his colleagues over here.”
Trump’s move toward Democrats wasn’t the only source of tension with congressional Republicans. His announcement earlier in the week that he would wind down protections for Dreamers — and put the onus on Congress to fix the problem — drove another rift through the GOP ranks. And on Wednesday, Trump shared the stage in North Dakota with Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, whom McConnell badly wants to unseat next year.
“I don’t think there is much of a relationship,” a Republican senator said of Trump’s coordination with the congressional GOP. “It’s up to the president. Mitch will do what Mitch does.”
The president has seemed uninterested in a sustained partnership with congressional Republicans, leaving much of that work to Vice President Mike Pence, his Cabinet and legislative aides. Trump does talk to individual senators and congressmen regularly, but he often tells them different things rather than fostering a sense of unity, Republicans say.
That’s led to increasingly regular rebellions against Trump’s leadership, punctuated by Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) vote against Obamacare repeal legislation in July despite Trump’s last-ditch phone call to McCain on the Senate floor.
There have been many other examples. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) wrote a book largely condemning his party for emboldening Trump. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) questioned Trump’s competence last month. And Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) is trying to protect special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia.
And, of course, Trump has repeatedly targeted McConnell over the failure to repeal Obamacare. Other Republicans have tried to dissuade him from doing so.
“The president has to understand he doesn’t have a leadership problem, he has a membership problem,” said one GOP senator friendly with both the White House and McConnell, referring to rank-and-file Republicans rather than GOP leaders.
Trump invited McConnell and other congressional leaders to Trump Tower in August mid-feud, but the logistics proved too complicated. And McConnell’s allies say the calculating Republican leader moves on from setbacks with the president nearly as soon as they’ve happened, eyeing the next big-ticket item, tax reform.
“The president’s frustrated. And we’re all frustrated but we’ve got to operate despite that frustration and I think nobody understands that better than Sen. McConnell,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas).
Added Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who flew with Trump on Air Force One last week: “My belief is that we’re ready to move on to the next issue. And both the White House and the Congress understand how important it is we get something done on taxes.”
However, the deal Trump cut on Wednesday with Schumer and Pelosi might make that more difficult, focusing all of Washington’s attention on the next deadline: Dec. 15, when the debt ceiling and spending deal expires. The Treasury Department can buy more time on the debt ceiling into 2018, but that still means more votes that split the party, to the delight of Democrats and detriment of Republicans.
“That’s the most toxic vote you can have around here,” said a second House Republican. “It’s terrible.”
Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.
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