Why Trump Pivoted

It’s not necessarily a great feeling to find myself in complete agreement with a person like Rick Manning, but he’s only saying exactly what I’ve been saying repeatedly for the last ten months.

“Republicans who dared to cut deals with Democrats have long had to fear retribution from conservative activists like Rick Manning, president of Americans for Limited Government. He had railed against a 2015 debt-ceiling compromise as ‘absurd,’ and as recently as March called for President Trump to use the vote to ‘create real reforms’ to cut spending,” the Washington Post reports.

“But when Trump shocked the nation last week, handing Democrats a major victory by accepting their terms for a clean three-month suspension of the borrowing limit, Manning says he felt no ill will for the president. Instead, he blamed House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) for forcing Trump to work with Democrats. “He gave them the opportunity to legislate and they failed, so of course he’s got to knock over the table,” Manning said.

Let’s go back to that “absurd” debt-ceiling compromise from 2015. It’s important, because it helps us remember how Paul Ryan became Speaker of the House.

For years, tensions had been boiling between the hard right of the Republican Party and the House leadership, a battle that effectively pushed Speaker John Boehner out of office and ended the bid of Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy to succeed him.

The first serious sign that John Boehner’s grip on the Speaker’s gavel might be loosening came just before the 2015 August recess, when Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina filed a non-privileged motion to “vacate the chair.” It was no more than a shot across Boehner’s bow because it went straight to the Rules Committee still under Boehner’s iron control, which meant that the motion wasn’t going anywhere. It sent a strong message, though, especially because it was accompanied by an itemized list of grievances, including the accusation that Boehner had “endeavored to consolidate power and centralize decision-making, bypassing the majority of the 435 Members of Congress and the people they represent.”

For Meadows and his tea-partying Freedom Caucus compatriots, “the majority of the 435 Members of Congress” were not the bloc that provided the most votes on any particular issue. The majority could only be defined as the party with the most members. In other words, Speaker Boehner stood accused of introducing and passing legislation that the majority of Republicans in the House did not support. Boehner had repeatedly been forced to resort to asking the Democrats to provide the bulk of the votes needed to pass bills that would keep the government operating and prevent our country from defaulting on its debts. And, even in late July of 2015, it was clear that he was gearing up to do this again.

Things didn’t come to a head until late September, right after Pope Francis addressed a joint session of Congress. That’s when, with a government shutdown imminent, the Freedom Caucus threatened to force a no-confidence vote that couldn’t be bottled up in the Rules Committee. Two days prior to the actual coup, I wrote that “the Republican congressional leadership should succumb sooner rather than later to some kind of vicious political challenge from within.” I had been predicting that Boehner could only survive by acknowledging and empowering the functional majority in Congress that voted for the spending bills. To survive a no-confidence vote, he needed to cut some kind of deal with the Democrats to give them more power over the committees. I also predicted that he would rather resign than break with his own party.

The way I put it at the time of the coup was that Boehner had “traded his own scalp for the ability to fund the government.” He had tried to meet and reason with the Freedom Caucus, but they refused to vote for a clean bill to avoid a government shutdown and insisted that a rider be attached defunding Planned Parenthood. In desperation, Boehner asked them if they would allow him to move everything, including an extension of the debt ceiling, if he agreed to resign. The Freedom Caucus plotters accepted that deal.

The initial scuttlebutt was that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy would succeed Boehner as Speaker, but my immediate reaction to that was strong skepticism:

The rumor is that Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California will replace Boehner but I will begin to believe that when I see it. There’s basically nothing about McCarthy that would alter the impasse between the sane people and the lunatics. It would certainly represent an empty victory for the conservative nut-jobs who forced Boehner out, and either McCarthy would have to run things much differently or he’d be in Boehner’s shoes within weeks.

I was right that McCarthy would be a non-starter with the Freedom Caucus, and it soon became doubtful that any Republican could get the votes to become Speaker. That’s when 2012 vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan emerged as a potential consensus pick, but he was reluctant to take the job for two reasons. The first was that he had recently achieved a life-long ambition of chairing the House Ways & Means Committee. The second was that he had seen what happened to Boehner and knew he’d have the same problems unifying the Republican caucus and getting them to agree to fund the government and pay our bills on time. One of his first conditions for accepting the gavel was that he be exempt from the instrument that had forced Boehner’s resignation, a privileged motion to vacate the chair. But he had to back down on that and instead, make commitments.

The 45-year-old Wisconsin congressman said he would only push important bills such as immigration that have a majority of support from Republicans — abiding by the “Hastert Rule.” He promised bold policy ideas on the House floor like welfare reform, health care legislation and a tax overhaul — and that the chamber would stand firm on those policy proposals with Senate Republicans and the White House. He softened his demand to roll back a procedure allowing lawmakers to overthrow a sitting speaker.

Two things are worth noting here. The first is that Ryan promised not to bring up any immigration reform bill, even if it could pass, if the majority of his caucus did not intend to vote for it. On a related note, he committed to abide by the Hastert Rule:

Hastert Rule: An informal rule of the House of Representatives first imposed by Speaker Denny Hastert. The rule holds that the Speaker of the House shall bring no bill to a vote that does not have majority support among members of the majority. In other words, under Republican Speaker Hastert, who was elected Speaker by a GOP majority of the House of Representatives, no bill could be brought to the floor for a vote unless a majority of House Republicans supported the bill.

In making this commitment, Ryan risked placing himself in an untenable future position where he would risk a default on the nations’ debt if he could not convince a majority of his own caucus to vote to raise the debt ceiling. And, flashing forward nearly two years, that’s exactly the predicament Ryan found himself in during August as he tried to figure out how he could keep his promise and still meet the Trump administration’s demand that the debt ceiling be extended, preferably before the August recess.

When Hurricane Harvey hit southeast Texas at the end of last month, it provided Ryan with an unexpected opportunity to solve his dilemma. On August 31st, I wrote Combining Disaster Relief With the Debt Ceiling is a No-Brainer, in which I said that even though “the Freedom Caucus wants no part of this solution,” it could provide a way for the Republican leadership to get the votes they needed from their own caucuses to raise the debt ceiling.

In that piece, I acknowledged that the Republicans could gain a theoretical advantage over the Democrats by coupling that disaster relief with the debt ceiling, but I was basically dismissive: “…if Ryan and McConnell want to pass a bill with offsets or side amendments as the Freedom Caucus is demanding, they cannot rely on the House Democrats to help them. They’d need nearly all of the Freedom Caucus to vote with them and then figure out how to pull off a miracle and win the support of eight Democrats in the Senate.”

This unlikely scenario represents the supposed leverage that the Republicans had over the Democrats and that President Trump pissed away by breezily agreeing to a clean three month extension of the debt ceiling in a meeting with congressional leaders of both parties last week. But, in truth, that was never the actual point of coupling the two bills together. What Ryan wanted was to avoid violating his pledge to honor the Hastert Rule.

And you should take careful note of the fact that despite all the crying and moaning, Ryan succeeded in his mission. When the House voted last Thursday on the combined disaster relief/debt ceiling bill, it passed 316-90, with 133 Republicans voting for it and only ninety voting against. It’s beyond doubtful that Ryan could have succeeded in winning the support of the majority of his caucus for a “clean” debt ceiling or a clean continuing resolution if he had not been able to attach them to the disaster relief bill.

The Freedom Caucus wasn’t really fooled, though. They begged Ryan not to jam them up by forcing them to choose between their principles and denying people in desperate need the aid they deserved. They made rumblings about a revolt. But suddenly the sands shifted beneath their feet. They had been accusing Ryan of pulling the same kind of fast one on them they had come to expect from Boehner, who Meadows had accused of “pushing legislation to the brink to compel votes in a state of crisis.”

Yet, when Trump accepted a three-month deal instead of the eighteen-month deal that Ryan was asking for, the story became all about the president’s betrayal instead of Ryan’s.

It’s true that Ryan came off looking weak and disrespected, but he also cleaned a lot of the clutter off his overloaded legislative plate, avoided violating the Hastert Rule, prevented a government shutdown, and avoided a potentially catastrophic default on our country’s debt. And he managed to get all this done without getting most of the attention or the bulk of the criticism.

The criticism of Trump is based on a number premises, some outright false and others merely contentious.

To begin with, the dynamic of the debt ceiling since the time of Boehner’s speakership has been focused on the hard right’s desire to use the need to expand our borrowing authority to force spending cuts, particularly of entitlements and non-defense discretionary spending. In general, conservatives have welcomed the arrival of the debt ceiling vote because they saw it as giving them leverage. They were so opposed to “clean” debt ceiling extensions that they forced their own Speaker out of power and made their new one pledge not to even introduce them. If you asked them how long they wanted a new extension to last, they’d tell you that for a clean one it should last for the shortest possible amount of time.

But clearly, the leadership and much of the rank-and-file (or moderate) Republican membership dreaded debt ceiling votes like root canals. They wouldn’t normally admit it, but they would prefer to do away with the debt ceiling requirement entirely. And that’s why they secretly welcomed Ryan’s plan to ask for an eighteen month extension, even if didn’t come with any spending cuts, that would push the issue past the midterms.

So, in the normal dynamic of Congress, the three-month offer made by Pelosi and Schumer should have been far more attractive to the Republicans than the eighteen-month deal, but that wasn’t actually true for most of them. Aside from some of the more committed Freedom Caucus types, the majority sentiment among Republicans was that it would be better to just use the disaster relief bill as a cover to violate their long-espoused principles. Trump was supposed to understand this, sympathize with it, and enable it.

Of course, there was the theoretical leverage argument that I largely dismissed above. This held that the Democrats would agree to concessions out of fear of voting against disaster relief. But this is almost surely wrong. The Democrats could have objected to the coupling of the debt ceiling and disaster relief and stopped it cold in the Senate. And they would have. Voting against a motion to proceed to a disaster relief bill would hurt a little bit, but not too much when the disaster relief bill eventually passed as a stand-alone.

Moreover, if the disaster relief bill were passed as a stand alone, Ryan would be back in his original position of having no plan for a credit default and a government shutdown without violating the Hastert Rule.

For Trump, he had three pressing needs when he got to the meeting with Schumer, Pelosi, McConnell and Ryan. He had been told that FEMA was almost out of money and he needed funding for them immediately. He could not allow the meeting to end without having found a solution to that problem. He had also been told that the debt ceiling was getting critical and he knew that Ryan and McConnell didn’t have the votes. And he wanted to avoid, if possible, a government shutdown that was not going to look good considering that the Republicans control both the White House and Congress.

Ryan and McConnell had no plan to help Trump get these three things that didn’t include getting Democratic votes. And their plan for getting Democratic votes was so flawed as to be almost ridiculous. Supposedly, the Democrats would cave on everything in order to avoid temporarily voting against disaster relief.

Trump’s Treasury Secretary wanted an eighteen month debt ceiling extension because Wall Street hates uncertainty over whether we’ll default. Ryan and McConnell wanted it because it would take the issue off the table and get the Freedom Caucus off their backs. And, of course, the need to get Democratic votes again would be pushed off, which is the only part of this that seems to have gotten much attention.

As the meeting progressed, it was not long before the eighteen month request was abandoned as unrealistic. They began haggling over whether it would be a year or six months. But neither of those would have pushed the next vote past the midterms. That objective was a non-starter.

Supposedly, President Trump was in the wrong when he decided that he didn’t much care whether it was a six-month or a three-month extension. And why should he have cared? What real difference would it make? He needed a deal right then, particularly on FEMA funding. How long should he allow the negotiating to go on when the only people with cards to play were the Democrats who could withhold the votes the president needed?

Things would have been different if the Republicans could have passed the bill on their own, right? If there weren’t ninety Republicans in the House willing to vote against raising the debt ceiling even when it was coupled to disaster relief then Schumer and Pelosi wouldn’t have had all the negotiating power. Trump listened to Ryan and McConnell’s demands, but they couldn’t deliver anything for him.

And, as Rick Manning pointed out at the top, Trump “gave them the opportunity to legislate and they failed.” They said they’d repeal and replace Obamacare and they didn’t. They didn’t pass a budget which is a prerequisite for passing tax reform. And they were about to cause a government shutdown and a credit default because they couldn’t get the House Republicans to vote with them.

Trump didn’t sell them out. He pivoted because he had no other choice. And he did it in a way where he accepted the blame and deflected blame away from Ryan, allowing him to keep his promises on the Hastert Rule. Trump gave the Republican leaders some time and freedom to pursue tax reform, which is now more (not less) likely to pass than it was before.

So, will Trump make this a habit? Will he continue to look for deals he can make with Democrats even if they supposedly come at the expense of the Republican Party?

Put it this way. He tried to govern in a way that required no Democratic votes. It got him exactly nothing.

Or ask yourself this question: what can Ryan and McConnell deliver to the president that won’t require compromise with the Democratic side?

Trump has no ideological ballast. But he knows useless when he sees it. He’s not moving because he wants to. He’s moving because he ran out of other options.

And, in the end, the way he did this was both a giant favor to Ryan and a way to revive some hope that he can still pass a tax bill without actually relying on the Democrats. For granting this favor, his reward was to be told that he’d made tax reform more difficult.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.