President Donald Trump has unleashed a pair of new strategies to gain leverage over recalcitrant GOP lawmakers in Congress: Flirt with the Democrats and force the hand of Congress through orchestrated crisis.
The president shocked GOP leaders in Congress Wednesday by cutting a debt-ceiling bargain with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. The deal tied funds for Hurricane Harvey recovery to a three-month increase of the debt ceiling. Many conservatives howled at the move but some suggested it was a sly move to encourage congressional Republicans to play ball on key agenda items, such as tax reform, going forward.
“[It was] a bold political move, free of ideology, that could clear the September decks for tax reform,” Andrew Malcolm, a conservative columnist for McClatchy, told LifeZette in an email.
The shock Wednesday move followed another bold play by Trump on Tuesday, when he revoked the executive order of former President Barack Obama known as DACA, for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA provided de facto amnesty to over 800,000 illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.
Democrats and Republicans were shocked Trump dared to revoke the order, but the president included a six-month delay on the action, all but forcing the GOP-led Congress to act under immense political pressure. Most observers agree Trump would like to see a compromise deal be struck that includes funding for a wall or serious immigration reform — coupled with legal status for so-called dreamers, the term for recipients of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act.
Forcing the hand of lawmakers in Congress over immigration could be a trial run for a similar strategy with health care.
The administration agreed to pay controversial subsidies that prop up the Obamacare system in August, but on a temporary basis. Trump could still instruct his administration to halt the payments in the future, throwing the health care markets into an orchestrated chaos to force action on an Obamacare replacement on Capitol Hill.
Siding with the Democrats on the debt ceiling also creates pressure on Republicans to move faster on their promised agenda.
Laura Ingraham, editor-in-chief of LifeZette, told Fox News’ “Special Report with Bret Baier” on Thursday night that Republicans “have no one to blame but themselves” for the slow progress on key campaign promises.
Ingraham cited the failed “skinny repeal” of Obamacare in late July. Capitol Hill Republicans told Trump for months they could handle the landmark legislation, which they’d promised for months.
“Time after time after time, Donald Trump trusted what was going on on Capitol Hill,” said Ingraham. “They could not deliver a piece of legislation to his desk that actually could be signed. It was impossible. So what does someone who is a conservative populist do when he wants to move the ball down the field? He’s going to [ask], what other players can I throw to?”
Some conservatives worry a dalliance with Schumer and Pelosi will burn the White House and undercut the GOP in the 2018 midterm elections. Tying Democratic congressional candidates to Pelosi has emerged as the top Republican strategy for victory in contested House races — a tactic sure to be undercut if Trump and Pelosi become working partners.
David Bozell, president of ForAmerica, told LifeZette on Wednesday this is the kind of moment that could “derail President Trump’s presidency” and suggested there is a reason his campaign rally in Arizona last month was not filled to capacity.
Conservatives also fret Trump will get nothing in return, expressing skepticism that a DACA deal would ever include significant funding for a border wall.
“He is kind of going down here a little bit on this sinking ship called the Republican Party,” he said.
In Trump’s mind, however, it might be best to keep one foot on the sinking ship known as the Democrats. The strategy handed the White House a win on passing Harvey relief quickly, without partisan bickering. The debt-ceiling deal passed the Senate 80-17 on Thursday and 316-91 in the House Friday.
Many of the Republican nay votes were Trump critics: Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, and Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska.
In the Senate alone, Trump got something done without his own party’s biggest Trump critics. It’s probably deeply satisfying for the president, and likely to encourage him to use the Democrats and crises more often.