WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump struck a deal with Democratic congressional leaders Wednesday to increase the debt limit and finance the government until mid-December, blindsiding his Republican allies as he reached across the aisle to resolve a major dispute for the first time since taking office.
The agreement would avert a fiscal showdown later this month without the partisan battle that many had anticipated by combining a debt ceiling increase and stopgap spending measure with relief aid to Texas and other areas devastated by Hurricane Harvey. But without addressing the fundamental underlying issues, it set up the prospect for an even bigger clash at the end of the year.
In embracing the three-month deal, Trump accepted a Democratic proposal that had been rejected earlier in the day by Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin. Trump’s snap decision at a White House meeting caught Republican leaders off-guard and reflected friction between the president and his party. After weeks of criticizing Republican leaders for failing to pass legislation, Trump signaled that he was willing to cross party lines to score some much-desired legislative victories.
The deal to keep the government open and paying its debts until Dec. 15 represented an extraordinary public turn for the president, who has for much of his term set himself up on the right flank of the Republican Party. But it remained unclear whether Trump’s collaboration with Democrats foreshadowed a more sustained shift in strategy by a president who has presented himself as a master dealmaker or amounted to just a one-time instinctual reaction of a mercurial leader momentarily eager to poke his estranged allies.
Trump not only accepted the spending-and-debt plan advanced by Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leaders, but also aligned himself with them on immigration. A day after rescinding President Barack Obama’s program protecting younger unauthorized immigrants on the grounds that it went beyond a president’s authority, Trump said he wanted to work with Democrats to legalize the program.
“We had a very good meeting with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer,” Trump told reporters after the Oval Office session without mentioning that Ryan and other Republican leaders had also attended. Regarding the immigration program, Trump said, “Chuck and Nancy would like to see something happen, and so do I.”
Republican leaders looked grim but resigned afterward and attributed Trump’s fiscal deal to a need for unity after Harvey struck Texas and as Hurricane Irma barreled toward Florida.
“Look, the president can speak for himself, but his feeling was that we needed to come together to not create a picture of divisiveness at a time of genuine national crisis, and that was the rationale,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader.
Democrats were grinning at their surprise victory and happy to rub it in.
“It was a really good moment of some bipartisanship,” Schumer said. He added: “The bottom line is the president listened to the arguments. We think we made a very reasonable and strong argument. And to his credit, he went with the better argument.”
Until now, Trump has sought to govern through the strength of Republican majorities in Congress, an approach that has not secured top priorities like repealing Obama’s health care program. After castigating Democrats as obstructionists, Trump may now seek common cause on areas of mutual interest like infrastructure projects, immigration and taxes.
Soon after meeting with congressional leaders at the White House, the president boarded Air Force One to fly to North Dakota to push for a tax overhaul. Among the onboard guests was Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, the first Democratic lawmaker to join Trump aboard Air Force One since he was inaugurated in January.
The flight gave Trump an extended opportunity to woo Heitkamp, who faces a tough re-election battle next year in a state that gave the president a 36-point margin during last year’s election. As local lawmakers pointed out, Heitkamp may find it politically advantageous to cozy up to the most popular figure in the state.
At the event, at an oil refinery in Heitkamp’s hometown, Mandan, Trump called her onto the stage with her Republican colleagues.
“Everyone’s saying, ‘What’s she doing up here?'” Trump said as she joined him in front of an audience filled with Republicans. “But I’ll tell you what — good woman. And I think we’ll have your support. I hope we’ll have your support. And thank you very much, Senator.”
While Heitkamp can hardly afford to alienate Trump, she has been cagey about the tax issue.
“It’s encouraging he committed to promoting American workers as key to any tax reform policy,” she said in a statement after the president’s visit Wednesday. “But, as North Dakota’s former tax commissioner, I know the devil is in the details of any reform plan as tax codes are complex.”
Trump’s courtship of Democrats left conservatives miffed at a spending-and-debt deal they considered anathema to their principles.
“The question of politics is, a deal to what end?” said Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C. “I think all of us as taxpayers need to be very skeptical of deals for the sake of deals.”
Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., chairman of the Republican Study Committee, expressed surprise at Trump’s action.
“I’m still processing this, but my first instinct is I’m not very happy about it,” he said.
Conservative groups like FreedomWorks and For America expressed indignation.
“This is straight out of the swamp,” said Adam Brandon, president of FreedomWorks, “and I call on President Trump to say something publicly about how this is a swamp deal and will not be tolerated.”
The agreement came as the House overwhelmingly approved nearly $8 billion in disaster aid in response to Harvey, taking quick action to help victims of the devastating flooding in Texas. The aid measure passed 419-3. The “no” votes were Republican.
The House vote took place five days after the White House requested about $7.9 billion in emergency aid. The vast majority of that money would go to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and $450 million would go to the Small Business Administration’s disaster loan program. And with Irma barreling toward Puerto Rico and Florida, more disaster aid is likely to be needed quickly.
Schumer and Pelosi pressed for a three-month deal to keep the government running and raise the debt ceiling along with the hurricane aid to give Democrats leverage later this year when other matters, including a longer-term government funding deal, could be negotiated between the two parties. By ensuring that all the pending issues converge at the end of the year, Democrats hope a longer-term agreement on fiscal matters could include immigration, health care and any number of other issues.
Ryan responded Wednesday morning by saying the Democrats’ proposal was “unworkable, and it could put in jeopardy the kind of hurricane response we need to have.”
“To play politics with the debt ceiling, like Schumer and Pelosi apparently are doing, I don’t think is a good idea,” Ryan said.
Once they arrived at the White House, however, Trump undercut Ryan. Congressional aides said privately that Republicans went into the meeting at the White House proposing an 18-month deal on government spending and the debt limit, only to run into resistance from the Democrats. They then proposed a six-month deal as a compromise, but Democrats insisted on a three-month agreement. Trump then surprised the Republicans by agreeing to the Democratic formulation.
“We essentially came to a deal, and I think the deal will be very good,” Trump said afterward. “We had a very, very cordial and professional meeting.”