WASHINGTON ― Republicans were caught by surprise Wednesday after Donald Trump, the self-proclaimed dealmaker president, took the first offer from Democrats on a short-term spending agreement to keep the government funded and raise the debt ceiling with no strings attached.
Over the objections of the GOP congressional leadership, Trump quickly accepted terms from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to fund the government (but not a border wall with Mexico) and to raise the debt limit (without any sort of spending reforms) for three months.
It is a plainly bad deal for Republicans, one that most in the party would have rejected outright during Barack Obama’s presidency, and all the more humiliating based on Schumer’s declaration afterwards: “Today was a good day.”
But the broad and initial reaction from GOP lawmakers on Wednesday was not one of disgust or disappointment; it was a reaction of begrudging acceptance and refusal to criticize.
Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), the first congressman to endorse Trump during the election campaign, said he was “obviously” fine with it. He said he would have preferred a raising of the debt ceiling into next year, but “because of the filibuster, he needed Schumer’s buy-in.”
“I would trust that that’s the best deal he could strike,” Collins said of Trump.
Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.) said he liked the short-term nature of the deal because it would allow Congress just enough time to finish up a modified appropriations process and strike a deal on cutting spending in exchange for increasing debt.
Asked if that was really the lesson from Trump’s quick willingness to raise the debt limit without any spending reforms, Loudermilk suggested that he trusted Trump. “He is a businessman,” Loudermilk said, adding that the president “understands you can’t continue to go into debt.”
A number of rank-and-file Republicans ― like Rep. Trey Hollingsworth (R-Ind.), Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-W.V.), Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.) and Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) ― squirmed out of questions about the deal by saying they couldn’t comment because they hadn’t seen legislative text, while other Republicans in Trump-friendly districts chose their words extremely carefully.
When asked what should be made of Trump’s abilities as a dealmaker to this point, Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) remained silent for 16 seconds before answering, “I don’t know if I’ve given much thought to it.”
Democrats were perfectly willing to let Republicans believe they were somehow making out on Wednesday’s deal. Multiple members noted that, whether he realized it or not, Trump was setting precedents that would make it difficult for him to demand concessions like wall funding in the future, though some Democrats were cautious about drawing too many lessons from the president temporarily siding with them.
“Donald Trump reverse himself, contradict himself, reverse field, break a commitment or a promise?” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) asked facetiously. “Donald Trump?!”
But even if Democrats were careful not to gloat too much, and Republicans were careful not to have too strong of an opinion, some conservatives were willing to concede that Trump had made a bad deal.
“It’s very bad,” said Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.). Amash thought the agreement was so bad that congressional Republicans shouldn’t abide by it. “We have three separate branches of government, and the president is in charge of the executive branch, and we’re in charge of the legislative branch.”
Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) added that the deal was “perplexing,” while Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) issued a statement saying, “The Pelosi-Schumer-Trump deal is bad.”
But save a few critical conservative voices, Republicans were careful not to criticize Trump.
In the Senate, McConnell broke the news to his caucus matter-of-factly over lunch. According to Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the Kentucky Republican notably referred to the deal as one struck between the president and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate.
Later, McConnell told reporters that “the president speaks for himself.” McConnell added that he would support the deal, despite the fact that GOP leaders opposed the idea of a short-term deal just hours earlier. (Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) actually called the offer “ridiculous” and “disgraceful” Wednesday morning.)
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she was “very surprised,” because the plan initially called for a longer extension of the debt ceiling.
“To have to go through this painful exercise again in December would not have been my first choice,” she said.
Republicans had tried to raise the debt ceiling for 18 months. But after Democrats rejected that offer, and then rejected a second offer to raise the debt limit for six months, Trump leapt at the offer of raising the limit for just three months, setting up a massive negotiation this fall and one large December deadline to fund the government and again raise the debt limit.
Trump’s director of legislative affairs, Marc Short, told reporters Wednesday that the three-month deal would allow Trump to “clear the decks” in Congress for tax reform. But the agreement is likely to do just the opposite. Lawmakers will now be locked in more negotiations, with more moving parts, because Trump took the shortest deal he could get.
Still, while that three-month can-kick may be the bare minimum, some Republicans, like Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), thought it was “better than not getting anything done at all.”
Other Republican senators, like Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), spun the deal as the product of reasonable GOP leaders who were willing to come together for the good of the country and “take the hits” in order to avoid a government shutdown.
But even Tillis had to acknowledge that, by traditional Washington deals, this was a win for Democrats.
“For people who want to keep score, maybe that’s true,” Tillis said.