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Trump sides with congressional Democrats in debt ceiling/Harvey funding fight

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump walk out of St John's Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., on Sunday after attending a service on the National Day of Prayer for victims of Hurricane Harvey. Trump struck a deal with congressional Democrats on Wednesday to keep the government running through December, against the wishes of congressional Republican leadership. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Breaking with congressional leadership in his own party, President Donald Trump endorsed a Harvey relief funding plan put forth by congressional Democrats that would tie Harvey relief funding to a relatively meager debt ceiling increase.

Congressional Republicans had favored a plan that would keep the government operating for 18 months or at least 6 months; however, after a round of negotiating on Wednesday, Trump endorsed a plan proposed by Democratic leadership that would keep the government operating only through December.

What the fight is about

Relief funding for victims of Hurricane Harvey is a politically popular proposition, and members of Congress from both parties wanted to extract concessions from the other side as part of a funding package.

Republican leadership hoped to use the opportunity to force a vote on the debt ceiling increase through at least the end of 2018, so that the threat of a shutdown would not dog Republicans on the campaign trail. Democrats preferred a much shorter period of time as a means of keeping check on the Republican agenda.

A third group, the conservative House Freedom Caucus, did not want Harvey funding tied to a debt ceiling increase at all, but rather preferred to tie the debt ceiling increase to spending cuts.

What Trump's decision means

For starters, it appears to mean that the House Freedom Caucus' demands for spending cuts are completely off the table, possibly at least through the end of 2018. Trump has clearly decided that it will be easier to cobble together a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans in order to force the Harvey spending through. If he succeeds, the House will likely not take up spending cuts again for quite some time.

Second, this places an immense amount of time pressure on Republican congressional leadership before the end of the calendar year. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) were already skeptical about their ability to push through important items on the president's agenda — items such as tax reform (which will require the passage of a budget resolution), border wall funding, a legislative "fix" for DACA, and infrastructure spending.

Republicans were hoping for at least one major legislative victory during the first year of Trump's presidency, and it seems likely that precious days or weeks will be taken up just keeping the government operating into 2018.

Also, this shift spells serious trouble for Republicans' ability to control the legislative agenda at all. Now that Democrats have learned that Trump will blink — and blink quickly — if the debt ceiling is threatened, Democrats are sure to use this tactic to force repeated concessions from Trump as he attempts to move any legislative agenda item forward.

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