Senate approves Trump’s debt deal with Democrats

Greg Nash

The Senate on Thursday approved a short-term bill to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling despite frustration among Republicans about the deal that President Trump struck with Democrats.

Senators voted 80-17 on the agreement, which includes an extension of government funding and an increase in the federal borrowing limit through Dec. 8. Those measures are paired with more than $15 billion in hurricane and disaster recovery aid.

Seventeen Republican senators voted against the deal, including Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), John McCain (Ariz.) and Rand Paul (Ky.). No Democrats voted against the measure. 

GOP Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), whose state was hit hard by Hurricane Harvey, supported the measure but stressed, “I would have much preferred a clean Harvey relief bill.” 

The deal has stoked widespread opposition in the GOP, particularly among conservatives. Though Republicans support helping communities devastated by Hurricane Harvey, many are loath to raise the debt ceiling or fund the government without spending or entitlement reforms.

The package will now bounce back to the House to be passed for a second time before heading to Trump for his signature. House lawmakers easily cleared a stand-alone Harvey recovery bill, on Wednesday, but that margin is expected to shrink now that the Senate has attached the debt-ceiling increase and the government funding measure.

The Republican Study Committee, the largest GOP caucus in the House with more than 150 members, came out against the deal on Thursday, calling it irresponsible. The caucus’s opposition means the deal might pass the House mainly with Democratic votes — an unusual dynamic with a Republican in the White House.

Trump appeared to shock GOP leadership during a closed-door White House meeting Wednesday when he sided with Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — who he later referred to as “Chuck and Nancy” — on a three-month deal. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin were in the meeting and had pushed for longer debt-limit increase, according to a source familiar with the meeting.

But Trump — who also floated doing away with all debt-ceiling votes — agreed to go with the Democratic push to do a three-month extension. The political U-turn came after Democrats offered a similar deal in the morning that didn’t include government funding, which Ryan had dismissed as “ridiculous.”

While few Republican senators were happy with the deal, they said Trump was within his rights to make it.

“I think Sen. McConnell said it’s the president’s prerogative to cut a deal if he wants to. And he apparently thought that was advantageous,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican.

But Cornyn added he would have preferred to have a longer extension noting that “lifting the debt ceiling is always unpleasant and usually we like to have some offsets or reforms.”

The surprise agreement left GOP leadership with a tough sale to rank-and-file members and an unenviable December schedule, when they’ll need to wrangle together another agreement to avoid a shutdown and raise the debt ceiling for the second time in three months.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said to reporters, “I guess we’ll address all the issues again in December. It will be a good holiday for you guys, sticking around.”

Trump administration officials touted the agreement as a move to help clear the decks and make room for tax reform, another key GOP agenda item that has been on hold.

GOP leaders had pointed to government funding, the debt ceiling and help for Harvey victims as their top three priorities for September. The deal cleared by Senate also includes a short-term extension of the National Flood Insurance Program, which was set to expire at the end of September.

“We’re very happy we have a deal,” Mnuchin told Fox Business on Thursday. “The president’s priority was to make sure we have the funding for [Hurricane] Harvey and to make sure we raise the debt limit to pay for that.”

Republicans were under intense pressure from outside groups to oppose the funding package.

“The Trump administration and congressional Republicans agreed to link that much-need emergency spending to a suspension of our nation’s debt ceiling, and the administration ultimately agreed with congressional Democrats that the debt ceiling suspension should last less than three months,” Heritage Action said Thursday.

The vote put Senate Republicans in between two politically bad decisions: Defy Trump and party leadership to oppose a deal with hurricane aide, or feel the wrath of conservatives who are already frustrated as Republicans have struggled to make good on campaign promises like repealing ObamaCare.

Conservatives, or Democrats, could have dragged out the Senate’s debate on the agreement until at least Friday. But leadership appeared to avert a rare Friday or Saturday session by allowing Paul and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) to get votes on their proposals to either pay for or scale back the bill.

Senators voted to set aside Paul’s push to pay for the $15.25 billion in hurricane recovery funding through cuts to unspent foreign aid money. They similarly rejected Sasse’s amendment to remove the debt and funding deal and pair the hurricane money back to the original House-passed level. 

“Chuck Schumer wrote the art of the steal by taking hurricane relief hostage to guarantee a December showdown that favors Democratic spending priorities,” Sasse said ahead of the vote. “Republicans should reject Schumer’s deal and instead pass the same clean aid package for Harvey victims that the House passed yesterday.”

The other Republicans who voted against the bill were Sens. Bob Corker (Tenn.), Steve Daines (Mont.), Mike Enzi (Wyo.), Joni Ernst (Iowa), Deb Fischer (Neb.), Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Ron Johnson (Wis.), James Lankford (Oka.), Mike Lee (Utah), Jerry Moran (Kan.), Jim Risch (Idaho), Pat Toomey (Pa.) and Sasse.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) who is on trial for bribery and corruption charges, missed the vote, as did GOP Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Dan Sullivan (Alaska).

– This story was updated at 3:15 p.m.

Tags Ben Sasse Bob Corker Charles Schumer Chuck Grassley Chuck Schumer Dan Sullivan Deb Fischer James Lankford Jeff Flake Jerry Moran Jim Risch John Cornyn John McCain John Thune Joni Ernst Lindsey Graham Marco Rubio Mike Enzi Mike Lee Mitch McConnell Pat Toomey Paul Ryan Rand Paul Ron Johnson Steve Daines Steven Mnuchin Ted Cruz

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