Wednesday’s big political news was President Trump’s decision to accept an offer from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to punt the debt ceiling debate just three months down the road by forwarding a short-term extension to the nation’s borrowing limit. The package includes relief for Hurricane Harvey victims and an temporary federal funding measure to stave off a government shutdown for three months.
Their Republican counterparts, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, wanted the the debt ceiling to be extended for 18 months, or after the 2018 midterms. The motivations of congressional leaders on both side was purely political: Raising the debt ceiling creates internal rifts within the GOP caucus, since conservative hardliners hate the idea of increasing the national debt. But because the debt ceiling has to be raised, such a vote inevitably gives leverage to Democrats, whose cooperation establishment Republicans need in order to pass an increase. Now, the issue will come due again in three months, which theoretically gives Schumer and Pelosi more control in setting the agenda on unrelated issues such as a legislative replacement for DACA or fixes to the health insurance exchanges.
Assuming Congress can actually pass the thing, maybe the most important takeaway here should be simple (though short-term) relief about a fiscal disaster temporariliy averted. Harvey aid will be funded and the biggest items in the alarming September legislative calendar are deferred.
But conservatives are disturbed by Trump’s decision to shut out Ryan and McConnell and side with the Democrats, and national media outlets are abuzz with speculation about what game the president is playing (or trying to play). Is it a newfound interest in Clinton-style bipartisan triangulation, after being burned by Republican paralysis on health care and other issues? Is it the emergence of his hidden inner Democrat, now that Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus have departed the White House? His simple ignorance of legislative calendars and tactics? His impatience with long meetings?
Who knows. In any case, as the Washington Post’s Daily 202 writes, it seems unlikely that Trump can navigate triangulation to any great success after making himself so unacceptable to the Democratic rank and file:
But, but, but: The kind of deal making we saw yesterday probably cannot and will not last. Trump is toxic to most Democrats because of his personal behavior and his reaction to events like Charlottesville. Not to mention rescinding DACA, instituting the travel ban, pardoning Joe Arpaio, firing James Comey, etc., etc. The window for grand bargains has probably closed. Any Democrat who wants to run for president in 2020 recognizes that collaborating with Trump in any way will be a liability in the primaries, and more than a dozen Democratic senators want to run for president.
There is also a reasonable expectation that Trump will invariably go back to his old ways sooner than later. Maybe even with a tweetstorm today. Trump’s instinct is still to play to his base and preach to the choir.