WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump briskly overruled congressional Republicans and his own treasury secretary Wednesday to cut a deal with Democrats to keep the government operating and raise America's debt limit. The immediate goal was ensuring money for hurricane relief, but in the process the president brazenly rolled his own party's leaders.
In deal-making mode, Trump sided with the Democratic leaders — "Chuck and Nancy," as he amiably referred later to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — as they pushed for the three-month deal, brushing aside the urgings of GOP leaders and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin for a much longer extension to the debt limit. Republicans want that longer allowance to avoid having to take another vote on the politically toxic issue before the 2018 congressional elections.
The session painted a vivid portrait of discord at the highest ranks of the Republican Party. After an angry August that Trump spent lobbing attacks at fellow Republicans, specifically targeting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for the failure of health care legislation, the president wasted little time once Congress came back this week in demonstrating his disdain for the GOP House and Senate leaders charged with shepherding his agenda into law.
At first, in Wednesday's Oval Office meeting, the Republicans lobbied for an 18-month debt ceiling extension, then 12 months and then six, but Trump waved them off. As Mnuchin continued to press an economic argument in favor of a longer-term deal, Trump tired of it and cut him off mid-sentence.
At another point, the meeting totally lost focus when Ivanka Trump entered to raise an unrelated issue on child care tax credits. Details of the meeting were disclosed by several people briefed on the proceedings who spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly.
One photo taken through the window of the Oval Office showed an animated Schumer pointing his finger in Trump's face as the president smiles with his hands on his fellow New Yorker's arms.
After the meeting, Trump boarded a plane to North Dakota with Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in an effort to garner bipartisan support for tax legislation that Republican leaders on Capitol Hill are crafting on a purely partisan basis. That continued the day of bizarre disconnects between the president and the leaders of his party.
Trump called Heitkamp to the stage at his Dakota event and praised her as a "good woman." She will be running for re-election against a Republican in November 2018.
Heitkamp later issued a statement saying she needs to know more about Trump's tax plan before offering her support.
Aboard Air Force One, Trump told reporters, "We had a very good meeting with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer." He didn't mention Republicans McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, who also had been present. "We agreed to a three-month extension on debt ceiling, which they consider to be sacred, very important."
"I think the deal will be very good," Trump added.
Barely an hour earlier, Ryan had slammed the Democrats' demand for a three-month extension as "ridiculous and disgraceful." He issued no public statement on the final deal.
McConnell, in his own reserved fashion, did not sugar-coat what happened when he addressed reporters a short time later.
"In the meeting down at the White House, as I indicated, the president agreed with Sen. Schumer and Congresswoman Pelosi to do a three-month CR and a debt ceiling into December, and that's what I will be offering based on the president's decision," McConnell said. "CR" refers to a continuing resolution, which will extend existing government funding levels into mid-December, when the prospect of an enormous new round of deal-making now looms.
Asked whether he was surprised to see the president side with Democrats against his own party leadership, McConnell responded, "Look, the president can speak for himself, but his feeling was we needed to come together, not create a picture of divisiveness at a time of genuine national crisis, and that was the rationale."
In fact, Trump achieved the opposite.
"The Pelosi-Schumer-Trump deal is bad," Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said over Twitter.
"Hopefully we'll realize that negotiating with Democrats doesn't normally produce outstanding results," said Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, chairman of the House Freedom Caucus.
Late Wednesday, with criticism pouring in from Republicans, Mnuchin himself made a rare appearance in the Air Force One press cabin, as the president traveled back to Washington from North Dakota, to defend the deal.
"Our No. 1 priority was getting money for Harvey. Let me very clear: That's the president's number one agenda and we accomplished that," Mnuchin insisted.
Mnuchin also claimed several times that the president actually could have had a one-year package but didn't want to lose the opportunity to raise military spending in new budget bills before then. Aides to Schumer and Pelosi responded with incredulous disbelief to this claim.
The outcome was especially striking coming just a day after Trump announced he would be dismantling immigration protections for younger immigrants. He gave Congress six months to come up with a solution. That announcement had infuriated Democrats, and was not cheered by many Republicans either, since among other things it gives them a politically explosive issue to resolve ahead of the midterm elections.
Taken together, Trump's moves appeared to show little regard for the imperatives of his party leaders. And after the GOP's failure to pass long-promised legislation to repeal and replace "Obamacare," the events renewed questions about whether the party can summon the focus and unity to advance tax legislation, the next big item they want to tackle. However, White House officials argued that putting other issues off until December cleared the decks for tax talks.
The deal struck Wednesday at the White House promises to speed the $7.9 billion Hurricane Harvey aid bill, which passed the House overwhelmingly Wednesday, to Trump's desk before disaster accounts run out later this week. The debt ceiling and government funding extensions will be attached.
The move also buys almost three months, until Dec. 15, for Washington to try to solve myriad other issues, including more funding for the military, immigration and health care, and a longer-term increase in the government's borrowing authority to avoid a first-ever default. Adding the stopgap funding bill to the Harvey aid package would also immediately free about $7 billion in additional disaster funds.
Schumer was as pleased in the aftermath as McConnell was dour.
"The bottom line is, the president listened to the arguments," Schumer said. "We think we made a very reasonable and strong argument. And, to his credit, he went with the better argument."