Earlier this week, the September forecast for Capitol Hill was looking nasty: lawmakers returned from the August recess facing a critical September 30 deadline to fund the government and extend the U.S. borrowing limit, along with deadlines to reauthorize a children’s health insurance program and a federal flood insurance program. On top of that, the week before, Hurricane Harvey had devastated southeast Texas, putting pressure on Congress to pass a relief package as soon as possible.
On Congress’ second day back at work, there came an unexpected announcement from the White House: President Donald Trump reached an agreement with congressional leaders to fund relief for Harvey victims, keep the government open, and extend the debt ceiling through December 15 — avoiding, for now, contentious negotiations whose failure could result in a government shutdown or a default on the country’s debt.
Trump did not strike the deal with the leaders of his own party: rather, he sided with the Democrats, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who pushed for the three-month extensions over the objections of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and his own Treasury chief, Steven Mnuchin.
The deal suddenly gives the minority Democrats a lot more leverage over the congressional to-do list for the rest of the year: because Democratic votes will be required for a debt limit increase and government funding, Schumer and Pelosi believe they could advance some of their party’s priorities — particularly securing legal status for the 800,000 undocumented immigrants, the so-called Dreamers, who were brought to the U.S. as children.
Trump’s unpredictable nature has gifted Democrats a stronger hand heading into the end of the year. They’re not holding out for a detente with the president, but some Minnesota Democrats are eager to seize the opportunity to accomplish things in the minority that they didn’t think were possible.
The art of the deal
A random confluence of events came together to put Democrats in this position. First, there were the deadlines for the debt limit and government funding, which lawmakers have known and fretted about for months.
Then, the devastation wreaked by Harvey put on the table a must-pass bill for Congress, in the form of an aid package to the storm’s victims. Legislation like that, which would earn the support of an overwhelming majority of lawmakers, added a new layer to the legislative picture.
Both sides knew that extensions to the debt limit and government funding would be required. Republicans wanted to extend the debt limit to after the 2018 elections, to minimize the political pain of taking necessary but unpopular votes to increase the country’s borrowing authority and prevent a default. Democrats pushed for a three-month extension, keeping the prospect of must-pass legislation on the table for a little longer.
The debt ceiling is a particularly potent asset for Democrats because, in a GOP-controlled Congress with a sizeable faction of hard-line conservative members, the minority party’s votes would be needed to pass an extension. The last time the debt ceiling was raised, as part of a broader budget deal in late 2015, 79 Republicans joined with Democrats to pass the legislation, while 167 Republicans voted no.
Trump went with Schumer and Pelosi’s pitch — setting up a new mid-December deadline for both government funding and the debt ceiling, guaranteeing another set of tough votes, and preserving a major pressure point for Democrats.
This week, a purpose for Democratic pressure emerged: on Tuesday, the Trump administration announced its intention to terminate Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, the Obama administration’s program that allowed Dreamers to remain in the U.S. to live, work, and study without fear of deportation.
Trump decided to end DACA six months from now to give Congress time to determine a long-term solution for the Dreamers’ status in the U.S. Stand-alone immigration legislation has struggled in Congress before — the DREAM Act to address legal status for undocumented youth failed in 2010 — so Democrats are hopeful that the must-pass legislation on the table in December could carry with it something that secures legal status for them.
On Thursday, Congress approved this week’s big agreement without controversy. The Senate voted by a margin of 80 to 17 to extend the debt and funding deadlines and approve $15 billion in relief for Harvey victims; the House of Representatives approved that package on Friday, by a margin of 316 to 90.
Democrats in array
The reaction from Minnesota Democrats to the unlikely White House deal ranged from optimism and surprise to outright wariness.
Before the deal was announced on Wednesday, 1st District Rep. Tim Walz said he preferred a clean debt limit increase, and said he was “indifferent” to the three-month extension that Pelosi and Schumer were pushing.
Even then, Walz said he believed Democrats had some leverage over the Republicans to address DACA and other issues. After the deal, though? “I didn’t realize maybe that much leverage,” Walz confessed on Thursday.
“When you have the inability to govern, they’re counting on folks who are willing to cast the votes that need to be done,” Walz said of the Republicans. “ I think it allows us to maybe ask for some reasonable compromises.”
Eighth District Rep. Rick Nolan applauded Democratic leadership for securing a deal. “It gives us a much stronger position than I’d ever thought we’d be in, considering [Republicans] control the presidency and both houses of the Congress,” he said.
Nolan and Walz both said this deal gives Democrats more leverage to pursue a DACA solution that’s more amenable to their side of the aisle.
“You wait and see,” Nolan said. “Democrats are going to leverage this for a DACA fix.” He added that Democrats could also use their position to prevent what he called “poison pills” that could be attached to legislation, such as defunding Planned Parenthood or climate change research.
Fifth District Rep. Keith Ellison was not so ready to accept this as an unmitigated win for the Democrats. He does not trust Trump at a negotiating table: “I never believe Trump,” Ellison said. “If Trump shook my hand, when I brought my hand back, I’d count my fingers to make sure there’s five of them left.”
“I trust he will do the thing that makes him look the best with the people he cares about,” he went on. “I’m not sure Trump knows what he is going to say one day to the other… The signals from him are always cloudy and strange.”
At the same time, Ellison said, “I think we could end up getting what we’re looking for.”
“Republicans are in the majority. If they need Democratic votes to pass stuff, they ought to be figuring out how we’re going to get a vote on DACA… They better figure out how to get their minds around DACA.”
Among some progressive Democrats, there was some sentiment that Pelosi and Schumer caved, and that they should have pushed for an immediate DACA resolution — one that would be attached to the debt, funding, and Harvey relief package that the president is expected to sign soon. Ellison, a leading House progressive, would not say whether he thought this was a good idea, but the effort fizzled on Thursday anyway.
Republicans: not so fast
In the aftermath of Trump’s deal with the Democrats, Republicans publicly and privately fumed. Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse issued a statement calling the deal “bad” and declared that Schumer is the most powerful person in Washington through December.
Rep. Jason Lewis tried to put a positive spin on the unexpected turn of events. “I somewhat agree with this,” he told MinnPost. “Let’s let things cool down a little bit, and take some time to get some of these big issues right.”
Lewis said that pushing these key deadlines to December could give the GOP more time to work on tax reform, which the party has held up as a major legislative priority for 2017. In addition, Congress still faces other significant items on its to-do list through December, including reauthorizing the federal flood insurance program, funding the children’s health insurance program, passing appropriations bills for next year, and dealing with the potential fallout of Hurricane Irma, which is set to hit Florida in the coming days.
Lewis expressed some confusion as to why Democrats would have more leverage if the GOP makes progress on the tax reform front, which he expects. “To take a hypothetical, if you had tax reform and the debt ceiling coupled, does that give Democrats more leverage or does it give us more leverage?”
On DACA, Lewis said he didn’t understand the rush on the Democratic side. Third District Rep. Erik Paulsen welcomed the opportunity to do something about DACA soon, however. “I think there’s an opportunity to cooperate, compromise and get a package done that deals with DACA,” he said shortly after the deal was reached on Wednesday.
He said if a deal helps force an immigration compromise, “that’s probably a good thing.”
Despite the good news, even enthusiastic Democrats remained wary at the road ahead, and were cautious not to get ahead of themselves.
“It may be foolish of me to think the president has totally changed his spots this quickly,” Walz said. “But I also have always said, part if this is about always trying to extend trust, not being naive, but willing to come to the table.”
“As far as the president goes, on this, he made a pragmatic move… It’s a bit surprising, yes. But maybe I should be used to being surprised.”