One day after President Donald Trump shocked the Capitol by accepting Democrats’ three-month debt ceiling extension over the strenuous objections of both Republican leaders and his treasury secretary, most congressional Republicans are saying they’re not panicking. Yet.
“I don’t think it’s the last deal he’ll cut with Schumer and Pelosi,” North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, told me on Thursday, “but I don’t think it sets a precedent necessarily, that it’s going to happen all the time.” His fellow Freedom Caucuser, Virginia Rep. Dave Brat, also isn’t worried, telling reporters that he’s not sweating over Trump’s sudden buddy-buddy relationship with Democratic leaders.
“I’m a Calvinist,” he said. “I don’t panic.”
Though many Republicans disagree with the decision, which will force Congress to revisit the debt ceiling in December and give Democrats leverage in that month’s appropriations battle, most seemed to accept Trump’s one-off rationale: that he wanted to avert a September mess while massive hurricanes were battering the country every week—and that this shouldn’t be taken as a sign that he is done with Republican leadership.
“You have to accept (the deal) for what it was, and it’s a very short-term solution to an immediate problem, and I don’t foresee that being a pattern in the long term,” South Dakota Sen. John Thune said. “I think the president wanted to show unity, and it’s important given the circumstances facing Texas, Louisiana, and Florida that we show unity.”
Most Republicans are describing Trump’s agreement as the legislative equivalent of a total eclipse: a set of factors aligned in historically rare sequence—his interest in unity, his interest in getting the debt ceiling raised without drama, his personal pique with Republican leaders’ performance this year—that caused the president to arrive at this abnormal conclusion.
I, too, don’t expect Trump to become a reliable Democratic voice after one chummy meeting with “Chuck and Nancy,” as he called them. But it’s hard to ignore how pleased he’s seemed with himself since then. In the absolute worst sign for conservatives, the president has been basking in the positive reinforcement the media’s offering him. For the first time in forever, he has the mainstream media praising him—or at least laying off of him for a hot minute—over his surprising bipartisan turn. And he also has what we’ll call the Trump media, such as Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs, complimenting him for “taking Paul Ryan to the woodshed.” Trump’s base hates the Republican congressional leadership, so anytime he knocks Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell down a peg—even if doing so empowers Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi at the expense of conservative goals—they’ll reliably commend the move as shrewd executive leadership.
Trump called both Pelosi and Schumer on Thursday morning to brag about the coverage. He was in such a giving mood that Pelosi asked him to tweet some reassurance to Dreamers, and he did. The Washington Post reported Thursday that during their meeting, Trump and Schumer also “agreed to pursue a deal that would permanently remove the requirement that Congress repeatedly raise the debt ceiling.” Trump and Schumer met again on Thursday to discuss infrastructure.
As others have observed, Trump and Schumer seem far more comfortable together, as New York deal-makers who’ve known each other for decades, than Trump ever has with true-believing conservatives like Ryan or expressionless party men like McConnell. It’s a wonder it took Trump this long to recognize he might feel more comfortable as a nonpartisan broker than as a disengaged executor of the conservative movement’s ideological wish list.
One Republican who would acknowledge to me that conservatives have been whispering concerns to one another since Wednesday was North Carolina Rep. Mark Walker, the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the House’s largest conservative caucus.
“You kind of tapped into some of our backroom conversations,” Walker told me when I asked if conservatives were concerned about a new Trump-Schumer-Pelosi axis of deal-making. “The perception may be that if our Republicans won’t work with the president … then maybe he goes and finds somebody who’s willing to.” That fear, he said, is “coming out of some of our conservative circles.”
The pushback to Trump aligning with Schumer and Pelosi, I should note, wouldn’t strictly be from conservatives. Democrats, you may have noticed, hate Trump. It would not be an easy sell to the Democratic base for Pelosi and Schumer to work regularly with this president—the one whose political appeal and actions draw from nativism and nod to white supremacists—on big-ticket issues that might deliver him a smoother path to re-election. (Indeed, the opportunity to make congressional Democrats sweat for the first time is another reason why it’s in Trump’s interest to pursue more deals with them.) These jitters are already noticeable in some quarters. Though most congressional Democrats are fine with the debt ceiling deal, some are furious that Pelosi didn’t push harder to ensure that the DREAM Act was part of negotiations.
My suspicion is that the era of camaraderie between Trump, Schumer, and Pelosi will last a matter of days. Trump will throw another bone to his base, and Schumer and Pelosi will condemn him. The tax reform package that congressional Republicans unveil this fall will inevitably be a partisan wealth transfer from top down, and players will return to their trenches. Maybe the debt ceiling deal, and the sight of the United States government functioning briefly without the usual brinkmanship, was the legislative equivalence of a total eclipse. Don’t look too hard into it.