President Trump on Wednesday reached a deal with Democratic leaders of Congress to avert an economy-shaking fiscal crisis at the end of the month, a sudden move that caught Republican leaders off guard and severely undercut their legislative strategy.
Under the deal, the first of significance that the president has reached with Democrats, Congress would extend the nation’s borrowing limit and fund government operations until mid-December while Trump and lawmakers address other looming issues. The agreement could, however, simply delay the possible crisis until then.
Trump’s agreement, which he described to reporters as he flew to an event in Bismarck, N.D., came over the objections of his fellow Republicans, who ostensibly run Congress. In effect, Trump further empowered the Democratic minority to influence the outcome of a range of budget, immigration and tax issues through the end of the year.
The bargain left several Republican lawmakers seething that Trump, the self-proclaimed deal-maker, had given such leverage to their political rivals. Yet the president, who has grown increasingly frustrated that dissension in his party has helped stifle his agenda, sounded relieved to find an issue in which he could finally strike a deal.
The president spoke just after he met in the White House with the leaders of both parties.
"We had a very good meeting; we essentially came to a deal. I think the deal will be very good," he said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced the contours of the deal in a news release. They said the agreement to increase the government’s debt limit and to finance the government from the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1 through Dec. 15 would be attached to legislation to provide an initial installment of federal aid for victims of Hurricane Harvey and the approaching Hurricane Irma.
Trump, in repeating those elements when he spoke with reporters, amicably reflected on his shared legislative goals with “Chuck and Nancy” without mentioning the Republican leaders who had been in the room.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had expressed opposition to a similar plan before the Oval Office meeting. Afterward, McConnell made clear that the deal was Trump’s, even as he agreed to support it.
"The president can speak for himself,” McConnell told reporters at the Capitol. “But his feeling was that we needed to come together, not create a picture of divisiveness."
Meanwhile, the House voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to approve a $7.85-billion Hurricane Harvey aid bill. It now goes to the Senate, which could add the fiscal measures before sending the package back to the House.
Ryan had called Democrats’ proposal for adding a nearly three-month budget and debt extension to disaster aid a “ridiculous idea” just hours before going to the White House. He said they were playing politics with the issue.
Democrats, though a minority in Congress, have increased political leverage on debt-limit and budget votes because Republican leaders regularly lack sufficient support among their own party members; conservative hardliners typically oppose any measures to increase spending or the debt ceiling. Trump, by quickly taking Democrats’ side, enhanced their leverage.
Republican leaders had wanted to give the Treasury Department significantly longer-term borrowing authority by raising the debt ceiling high enough to cover all federal spending obligations through the 2018 midterm election, given the difficult internal politics of their party.
During the meeting in the Oval Office, several Republicans present — McConnell and Ryan as well as Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin — disagreed with Pelosi and Schumer’s proposal to combine disaster aid with the two fiscal measures, according to accounts from aides briefed about the session.
The Republican leaders countered by proposing an 18-month extension of borrowing authority and then six months. Pelosi and Schumer dismissed the proposals.
At one point, Trump cut off Mnuchin as the Treasury secretary reiterated his argument for a longer-term increase in the debt ceiling. The meeting seemed to be at an impasse until Trump abruptly sided with the Democrats.
As Republicans fumed, Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump walked in to say hello, and began changing the subject to her priority issue, child care. Republican leaders were “visibly annoyed,” one aide recounted.
”It’s not true,” Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong said.
When word of the bargain filtered to Capitol Hill, other Republican lawmakers were vexed at best. "Democrats got exactly what they wanted," said Rep. Mark Meadows, a Trump ally from North Carolina who leads the far-right House Freedom Caucus.
Trump himself had argued against a similar strategy before becoming president. In a tweet during an impasse over the debt ceiling in 2013, he wrote that Republicans offering a short-term extension were “the worst negotiators in history.”
“Pathetic!” he wrote then.
Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican and frequent Trump critic, issued a succinct one-line statement: “The Pelosi-Schumer-Trump deal is bad.”
Democrats were celebratory, with Schumer calling it “a really good moment of some bipartisanship and getting things done.”
“The bottom line is the president listened to the arguments,” he told reporters. “We think we made a very reasonable and strong argument. And to his credit, he went with the better argument.”
Marc Short, White House legislative director, told reporters traveling with Trump to North Dakota that the “bipartisan solution” bought time for Congress to overhaul the tax code — an ambitious goal nonetheless for a bill that has not even been written.
“We believe that helping to clear the decks in September enables us to focus on tax reform for the American people. We need to get the economy growing again, and that's what the president is focused on,” Short said.
The measure the House passed Wednesday included money only for Harvey aid, a small down payment on what is expected to be a much larger federal sum over time to address catastrophic flooding in Texas and Louisiana.
The 419-3 vote came as another monster hurricane, Irma, headed toward Puerto Rico and Florida, also threatening nearby states. Together, the two storms could make this the most expensive hurricane season in history. Officials estimate the final tally for Harvey alone could reach $150 billion.
While the aid installment bill is not a done deal, the swift and near-unanimous House vote was seen as a good sign for those in need of immediate help from federal programs.
“Help is on the way,” said Rep. John Culberson, a Republican who represents part of Houston.
Democrats noted that many Republicans, including Ryan, had voted against a $50.5-billion relief package in 2013 after Superstorm Sandy, which devastated the Northeast, because they’d demanded offsetting budget savings.
The states hit hardest by Sandy are predominantly Democratic, while those devastated by Harvey and threatened by Irma, a Category 5 hurricane, lean heavily Republican — leaving some Democrats seething that Republicans now are rushing to provide unconditional aid.
Rep. Nita M. Lowey, a New York Democrat, thanked Culberson for his support of the Sandy relief, and recalled that he was the only Texas Republican to back it.
Another Texan, Rep. Blake Farenthold, who was among the Republicans who had vocally opposed Sandy aid, said of the Harvey relief: “I urge Americans to open their hearts.”
Mnuchin, who for weeks had said Congress must pass a “clean” debt limit increase unencumbered with unrelated provisions, changed his position earlier this week, saying the White House wanted to add the debt limit extension to Harvey relief money.
Mnuchin has said lawmakers need to act before the end of the month to avoid the risk of a default. Since that coincides with the end of the fiscal year, Congress was faced with a rare dual deadline. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the Treasury will run out of cash to pay the nation’s bills by early to mid-October.
In coming months, the White House and Congress have a number of additional nettlesome issues to address. Trump is pressing to overhaul the tax code and cut taxes — the subject of his trip to North Dakota — and to revive the effort to pass an alternative to the Affordable Care Act. He also wants an infrastructure plan. But none of the measures have been written.
Also, given Trump’s action Tuesday to rescind the 5-year-old Obama-era program protecting from deportation certain immigrants who came to the country illegally as children, Congress now has a six-month deadline for coming up with a replacement program.
That, too, is an issue that Democrats are eager to work with the president on but that divides Republicans.
4:35 p.m.: This article was updated with additional quotes and background material.
12:05 p.m.: This article was updated with new developments and quotes from White House meeting.
This article was originally published at 9:45 a.m.