Yesterday afternoon, the president was the first to announce a budget and debt-limit deal that his own Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, negotiated with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Other congressional leaders were involved, of course, but the two principals reflected the locus of congressional Democratic power in the House and the fact that the administration could seal or kill any deal congressional Republicans embrace. That Mnuchin was in charge of the negotiations instead of acting White House chief of staff and OMB Director Mick Mulvaney — who is a bit to the right of Attila the Hun on fiscal matters — was logically understood as a sign that Trump really did want a deal.
But it speaks volumes today about Trump’s tendency to be erratic, particularly on budget issues, that there’s some doubt that he supports his own administration’s handiwork. Politico explains the situation in its morning Playbook:
[W]e do not yet have definitive evidence that President Donald Trump is supporting this agreement. He tweeted that he was “pleased to announce that a deal has been struck” and said it was a “real compromise in order to give another big victory to our Great Military and Vets!”
But the tweets from Trump did not explicitly say he supported it — and in this era of governing, that matters, because one person speaks for the president, and that’s him. (You might notice that press releases from folks like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy did not say they would support the bill — a nod to the fact that Trump could change his mind.) The leadership in both parties had expected a more forceful endorsement from Trump, several sources told us.
We asked the White House for clarification Monday — was the president in favor of this bill? They didn’t answer, but many others in the White House conceded to us that, indeed, the president needed to see how this all played in the public sphere.
In the absence of a definitive ukase from the Boss, conservatives have been quick to indulge their usual grousing about any fiscal compromise with the godless Democrats. Some attacked the surrender to liberal fiscal priorities, while others waved the threadbare bloody shirt of budget hawkery, failing to acknowledge that this administration and its congressional allies have left any principle of fiscal discipline far behind (certainly after their 2017 tax bill “blew a hole in the deficit,” to redeploy Al Gore’s famous nonsensical term). The Hill has a quick roundup of the right’s reactions:
Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), a member of House leadership, tweeted out a gif of the Joker burning a giant pile of cash when the announcement came out …
Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), a member of the House Freedom Caucus, on Monday penned a letter to Trump opposing the agreement and has since said he is “on board” with energizing conservatives to defeat the bill …
“President Trump has worked hard in his budget to restrain Congress’s unending desire to spend, but we can’t support this spending deal,” said David McIntosh, president of the Club for Growth …
Adam Brandon, the president of FreedomWorks, a conservative group, called the deal a “disgrace” …
The conservative Heritage Foundation, which has played a key role in crafting some Trump White House policies, didn’t hold back either.
“This deal comes less than four years after President Trump
campaigned to balance the budget by cutting spending and after his administration produced three budgets to move toward fiscal sustainability,” said Heritage scholar Paul Winfree.
“If President Trump takes this deal — the worst in a decade — his fiscal legacy will be no different than the Obama and Bush administrations that he has criticized,” he added.
The Club for Growth’s McIntosh suggested Mnuchin had sabotaged Trump, which will likely be a popular conservative position unless the president enforces discipline (on himself first, and then on his party).
But most notable has been the silence in some usually noisy corners. Breitbart News? Crickets so far. National Review? It apparently has other fish to fry this morning. And though some members of the chronically troublesome House Freedom Caucus are among the immediate critics of the deal, the group’s leadership is initially keeping its counsel:
The caucus is expected to meet Tuesday to discuss the deal. But its leaders, Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), both key Trump allies, have remained uncharacteristically quiet since the deal’s announcement, focusing their recent fire on an upcoming hearing with former special counsel Robert Mueller.
If conservatives do rebel against the deal, House Republican leaders need to decide if getting it done is important enough to accept a violation of the so-called Hastert Rule against support for legislation that a majority of Republicans in the chamber oppose. If they cross that line, and Democratic votes appear necessary, House progressives unhappy with Pelosi’s compromises in taking half a loaf on domestic priorities and allowing another gut-busting feast for the Pentagon could mount their own revolt or at least use their leverage (enhanced by the fear of another Pelosi-Squad dustup). Congressman Ro Khanna, a progressive supporter of Bernie Sanders’s presidential bid and a Budget Committee member, has already offered some measured but clear-cut “concerns” about the deal:
“I am pleased that the budget deal lifts the debt ceiling and moves us past the austerity of the Budget Control Act. That said, I remain concerned that defense spending has increased $100 billion since President Trump took office and now represents nearly 60 percent of discretionary federal spending. We need to invest in debt-free college, technical apprenticeships, and Medicare for all. We also are losing our leverage by agreeing to a lifting of the debt ceiling for the remainder of this term but then in turn handcuffing a future progressive president in 2021.”
The House really needs to vote on the budget deal this week (and the Senate next week) so that Congress can race out of town for its long August recess, so things will move quickly if they don’t come to a screeching halt. Trump remains the key to it all in the usual good and bad ways.