President Donald Trump may not realize how he’s been played by the two most powerful Democrats on Capitol Hill. During a White House meeting last week, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California convinced the president to take their side in a debate over raising the debt ceiling and ignore objections from top Republican leaders.
Trump was fresh from visits to Texas, where he heard urgent pleas for disaster relief in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Schumer and Pelosi, the minority leaders of their respective chambers, convinced Trump that a disaster relief package tied to a three-month extension of the nation’s debt ceiling was the fastest way to get aid where it was most needed.
The maneuver worked, and the measure passed both houses by large majorities. But the deal humiliated Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., whose well-founded concerns went ignored by Trump. They had argued that an 18-month extension to the debt limit would ensure greater financial stability and avert repeated, divisive debates over the topic ahead of the 2018 elections.
Schumer and Pelosi exploited the president’s lingering frustration over McConnell’s failure to pass an Obamacare repeal-and-replacement bill and Ryan’s seeming disloyalty for having criticized Trump publicly in recent weeks. The two Democrats appealed to Trump’s emotions. The two Republican leaders appealed to his sense of logic. Emotion prevailed.
The $15.3 billion aid package to victims of Hurricane Harvey would probably have passed with little trouble because most members recognized the urgency after record flooding in Houston. The more serious question was raising the debt ceiling, which is required when the government no longer has funds to pay its bills. Any failure to raise the ceiling would signify default, which would send massive shock waves through financial markets, downgrade the nation’s credit rating and cause foreign lenders to rethink future government loans.
Fiscal conservatives hate raising the debt ceiling because it means adding to the already impossibly high $19.84 trillion debt that this generation is passing off to its grandchildren. In the House, 90 members voted against the package. Many conservatives campaigned on promises to force greater fiscal responsibility in Washington. Preventing default is more fiscally responsible than voting against increasing the debt ceiling, but is harder to explain back home.
The deal that Schumer and Pelosi struck with Trump ensures that debate will play out repeatedly over the coming year. Democrats tend not to argue about the issue, but Republicans do. Every time the debate plays out, the party’s internal rift deepens.
Schumer and Pelosi correctly recognized the advantages their party gains when Republicans feud. Trump gave the Democrats exactly what they wanted.