It landed with a thud. A few hours after House Speaker Paul Ryan had sternly rejected a plan from Democrats for a short term debt ceiling increase that would be tied to an initial Hurricane Harvey disaster relief bill, President Donald Trump was accepting that exact plan in an Oval Office meeting at the White House, a move that left GOP lawmakers stunned on Capitol Hill, with many wondering what might come next.
Mr. Trump also agreed to a temporary plan to fund the federal government, setting up a series of mid-December deadlines which may bring about giant political showdown on a series of issues, just before the Christmas break.
Several hours later, GOP lawmakers still couldn’t believe their ears – and neither could reporters in the Capitol.
Here’s some of what we heard on one of the oddest days yet of the Trump Presidency:
1. It was a head shaking day for the GOP. The Trump plan was not what GOP lawmakers were looking for, and many made that very clear to reporters. A day after saying any deal to tie Hurricane Harvey aid to an increase in the nation’s debt limit would be a ‘punch to the stomach,’ Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC) was struggling to digest why President Trump agreed to exactly that at the request of Democrats. “This kind of caught us off guard,” Walker said in a total understatement. Other GOP lawmakers had the same reaction in spades. “I think what came out of the White House today was surprising to many of us,” said Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA). “I don’t know that the President was given a whole lot of conservative options,” grumbled Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), the head of the House Freedom Caucus.
2. On the Senate side, a similar reaction. Waiting to interview GOP Senators after their Wednesday lunch gathering, it wasn’t hard to tell right away that some Republicans really weren’t too interested in extended conversations with reporters about having to vote this week on a bill that combines Harvey aid with a temporary budget and a short term increase in the debt limit. Like House Republicans, that was not what GOP Senators had signed up to do – but the President had pulled the rug out from under them unexpectedly. At one point, the back door to the GOP caucus meeting opened, and a very glum looking Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) emerged, giving off the vibe of, “Don’t even think about asking me for a comment.” A few minutes later, he went on Twitter and showed that he was not in a good mood for a reason.
3. For Speaker Paul Ryan, it was a Trump rebuke. Just after 10 am, House Speaker Paul Ryan was asked about a plan from Democrats – the one that they would present to President Trump – to allow for only a three month increase in the nation’s debt limit. “I think that is a ridiculous idea,” Ryan said forcefully. “I hope they don’t mean that,” the Speaker added, accusing Democrats of going low. “I think that’s ridiculous and disgraceful that they want to play politics with the debt ceiling at this moment,” the Speaker said. It all seemed so clear at that point. Republicans wanted a debt ceiling extension that went past the next election, so they could get rid of the issue. Instead, the President pulled the rug out from under GOP leaders. Below is the tweet from Ryan’s spokeswoman Ashlee Strong. Not long after this was sent, the President was running over the Speaker of the House – in favor of Democrats.
4. Trump also undercut his Treasury Secretary. Not only did President Trump ignore the plans of GOP leaders in the Congress, he also gave the back of the hand to his own Secretary of Treasury, Steven Mnuchin, who joined in advocating a longer increase in the nation’s debt ceiling than just three months. But for whatever reason, Mr. Trump wasn’t in the mood to listen to his own Cabinet Secretary – instead, the President sided with Democratic leaders in the Congress, who haven’t exactly been supporting much – if any – of his agenda in the House and Senate. Is there a larger plan here? Or was it just Trump being Trump?
5. Other Trump warning flags for the GOP on DACA. The President again on Wednesday signaled that he might be ready to accept a bill from Congress that essentially grants amnesty to the thousands of young illegal immigrant “Dreamers” who are losing their legal protection against being deported in coming months. While the Trump Administration announced on Tuesday that it would be getting rid of the DACA program, the President seems to be saying that he wants it to be legalized by a vote of the Congress – a position that pits him squarely against most conservatives in the Congress, who sternly opposed the Obama Administration plan. There is probably a majority in the Congress for DACA – but most of those votes would be from Democrats, not the GOP.
6. Wednesday is what worries Republicans other issues. GOP lawmakers have seen this film before. That time when President Trump called the House-passed health care bill, “mean.” That time when the President abruptly called for the GOP to abandon an effort to simply repeal the Obama health law, forcing a strategy switch to ‘repeal and replace.’ Since the President has yet to put forward a plan on infrastructure or tax reform – leaving the details up to Congress – it could also put lawmakers in an uncomfortable spot if they include a provision that the President suddenly decides to deep six, for whatever reason. Is there a method to the madness? Or is this what Jeb Bush predicted at a GOP debate in 2015, that Trump would be the “Chaos President?”
7. Trump talks “Chuck and Nancy.” After dropping the bomb on GOP leaders at the White House, the President then headed to Air Force One, where he flew to North Dakota for a speech on tax reform. Before taking off, the President quickly spoke to reporters, and professed himself very pleased with the outcome. “We had a very good meeting with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer,” the President said to reporters, never mentioning that Speaker Ryan and Senate Majority Leader McConnell had been in the room as well. When talking about DACA, the President did the same thing: “Chuck and Nancy would like to see something happen, and so do I.” Nothing about how many GOP conservatives are opposed to the idea of doing something on DACA. I’m not saying Trump is turning into a Democrat. But this was not what conservatives were thinking at breakfast on Wednesday.
All I will say is, stay tuned. After surprising Speaker Ryan with this move on Wednesday, President Trump will host Ryan for dinner on Thursday night.