By all accounts, President Donald Trump's surprising decision to accept a Harvey relief/debt ceiling deal proposed by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) appears to have been a snap one.
According to first-hand accounts, Trump's behavior during the meeting was indicative of a man who was tired of what he considered to be petty bickering over an issue he considered to be of little importance and made a decision for the sake of ending a pointless argument.
Allegedly, Trump stunned everyone present in the room when he announced that he was accepting the Democrats' deal — including his own Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who Trump apparently cut off mid-sentence as he was arguing for a longer debt ceiling increase.
For all the world, Trump appears to have completely lost faith in the Republican leadership's ability to advance his agenda. He can certainly be forgiven for this to some extent, given the bungling efforts of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to fulfill a years-old promise to repeal and replace Obamacare.
McConnell and Ryan have said quietly behind the scenes that Trump's confusing and contradictory rhetoric during the fight did not help their chances, but there was certainly enough blame in the Obamacare repeal debacle for all the principals to have a slice — and a fair argument can be made that congressional failures should be laid at the feet of congressional leadership, not at the White House.
While Trump might have been right to send a public signal that he questioned the leadership of McConnell and Ryan, the specific signal he sent may end up torpedoing his whole domestic agenda for this year.
The reason for this is simple: While Ryan and McConnell might have questionable cat-herding skills and even worse policy instincts, they are acutely aware of the looming crunch in the House and Senate calendars.
Ryan and McConnell are well aware of the risks of ending 2017 without a single major legislative victory for the Trump/Republican agenda, and so they are working feverishly behind the scenes to make sure that at least one of Trump's key promises — be it tax reform, border-wall funding, or infrastructure spending — reaches Trump's desk by the end of the year.
As House Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) noted Thursday morning:
Trump, for his part, seems obsessed with passing tax reform, in particular, as a precursor to moving on to other items on his agenda. Trump's thinking seems to have been that by quickly accepting the Democrats' offer on Harvey funding, he cleared the calendar of vital space for tax reform debate.
However, what Ryan, McConnell, and Mnuchin realized was that Trump, in fact, has accomplished the exact opposite. Republican leadership realizes the only chance to pass tax reform in the Senate is through the reconciliation process, since there is no chance that eight Democrats will ever get on board with any tax reform package proposed by Trump. They also realize that they only get one bite at the reconciliation apple per year, and that time is running out. They also realize that before a bill can be passed through reconciliation, both chambers have to pass a budget resolution — and both Ryan and McConnell know that they are well short of the votes needed to pass such a resolution.
It's fair to question whether Ryan and McConnell are truly on board with some items on Trump's agenda (like the border wall), but tax reform is the one agenda item on which Trump, Ryan, and McConnell are well and truly in agreement. Ryan and McConnell genuinely want to get tax reform done, and they know that passing it before the end of the year will require a bitter fight on a series of very close votes.
In order to get this done they need all the calendar wiggle room they can get. By agreeing to a deal that kicks the debt ceiling fight down the road for a mere three months, Trump has thrown a bomb into the middle of the legislative calendar — one that is timed to explode right when Ryan and McConnell planned to use the looming year-end recess to pressure members to come to agreement on tax reform.
The simple political reality is that very few members of Congress — including Republicans — are going to risk running out of time on the "fiscal cliff" that is now looming in December. As much as they want to pass tax reform, they simply will not risk going over the fiscal cliff in order to do so. And since congressional Democrats are well aware of Republican skittishness about the fiscal cliff, expect them to drag their feet as long as possible during the debt ceiling debate in the hopes of killing tax reform and border wall funding, or at least postponing votes on them for as long as possible. And if Democrats are able to continue to force short-term debt ceiling increases, then Trump could be forced to go back to Democrats and negotiate on their terms every three months.
If Trump is really serious about working with Democrats in the future on the debt ceiling, he should be prepared for them to extract painful concessions for their "help." It would be shocking if Democrats agreed to another debt ceiling increase without, for instance, something as significant as a clean DACA bill with no border wall funding. And as Schumer and Pelosi learn that they hold a lever that the Republicans can't effectively counter, expect the concessions to Democrats' priorities to become more and more painful — and for Trump's agenda to get bogged down even further in the muck of congressional bill wrangling.
Trump may have sent McConnell and Ryan a powerful message yesterday. Unfortunately, he may have sabotaged many of his own legislative goals in the process.