Last week, Donald Trump made a deal with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to raise the debt ceiling and not play politics with it or Hurricane Harvey relief funding. Republicans, or at least House Republicans were aghast. But it is exactly what he was elected to do.
Congressional Republicans wanted the President to raise the debt ceiling but with spending concessions attached. Other Republicans wanted Harvey relief funding to be in a separate piece of legislation. Either way Trump disagreed and since August he had been saying he agreed with a clean debt ceiling vote. Obviously, when Schumer and Pelosi offered him it he jumped at the chance, Republican agreement be damned.
The move has shaken up Washington but little else. The rest of America is yawning and moving on. Indeed, the polls vindicate Trump’s decision as he is now nearing 40 percent approval in RCP’s average.
Republicans weary of the President have become more so even after the agreement. However, such weariness highlights an institutional misunderstanding of American priorities or power structures. Trump has a stranglehold on the party’s grassroots as highlighted by the number of primary challenges popping up to sitting GOP lawmakers.
Worse, any actions Trump does to improve his position can be seen by Republicans as hurting their interests. Take for example, Trump’s courtship of North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D).
Heitkamp is arguably one of the most endangered Democrats of this cycle as unlike fellow Senators Joe Donnelly in Indiana or Joe Manchin in West Virginia her state does not have a strong history of supporting down-ballot Democrats in federal elections.
This is probably why she, along with Donnelly and Manchin, did not sign a letter authored by the other 45 Democratic Senators automatically opposing tax reform if it in any way lowers taxes for the top one percent. This idea sounds good on paper but realistically any tax reform is going to benefit upper earners the most (in raw dollars not necessarily percentages).
Due to this letter and Heitkamp’s precarious electoral position, he invited her aboard Air Force One and at a rally in North Dakota called her “a good woman.” Republicans can envision Heitkamp using such a compliment in a campaign ad.
But this misses the forest for the trees. The more successful Trump is the better it is all for all Republicans. And while Heitkamp might get some votes from cross-over voters for her bipartisan actions if Trump is popular in the state she probably suffers to such a degree she loses. Of course, this assumes the traditional rules of Presidential approval hold. They might or might not.
Tax reform is something virtually all Americans support. Sure, as in healthcare reform, or any other type of reform, the devil is in the details but Trump is showing more political acumen than his adopted party.
He knows after the failure of repealing the ACA, tax reform will need to go through committees and regular order even if it is pursued through reconciliation. Remember, George Bush’s 2003 tax cuts were pursued through reconciliation but it was Democratic votes that got it across the finish line regardless. Trump will probably need some Democrats to. Especially if some conservative Senators like Rand Paul or Mike Lee balk at the details of tax reform.
It is already easy to see this happening. At least on corporate tax reform as the initial push for a 15 percent rate is likely to be dropped in favor of 20 or 22 percent. Such a move is likely to turn off a conservative Senator or two but in turn win over red-state Democrats eager to argue they can be pragmatic when need be. Likewise, in the House, such a dynamic could play well to get a dozen or so moderate Democrats to support tax reform which could be critical if the Freedom Caucus balks.
Ultimately, Trump’s move on the debt ceiling was pragmatic and surprisingly politically savvy for an administration reeling from one crisis after another over its first eight months. By clearing the decks of a bruising debt ceiling fight the President has given Republicans the opening they need to pass a budget, move forward on tax reform through regular order, and perhaps, make one last gasp at repealing or reforming the ACA before the end of September (sorry Bob Corker and Patty Murray, throwing more subsidies at insurance companies to lower premiums is not reforming or fixing the law).
If Republicans move forward on tax reform via the reconciliation process passing the budget is a must first-step. The budget resolution contains the reconciliation language and how the reform package will be fiscally scored. Without a budget tax reformers cannot move forward on the final package (though it has a ways to go). Meanwhile budget crafters cannot finalize their budget numbers without a better idea of the finalized details coming out from the Big Six-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Finance Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and top White House economic adviser Gary Cohn.
Trump’s move gives Republicans more time to finalize these details even as he begins his PR push to rally the country to his side and win over persuadable Democrats. Now that is a deal Republicans, even weary Congressional Republicans, should be able to get behind.