The Art of No Deal: How Chuck and Nancy Used GOP Dysfunction to Roll The Donald

(Image: Lorie Shaull, License: Wikimedia)

When Republican and Democratic leaders headed to the White House on Wednesday for a meeting - a negotiation - on the debt ceiling, government funding and disaster relief funding, few had expected its outcome. The Republican leadership had publicly and summarily rejected Democratic demands to extend the debt ceiling for only three months.

Republicans wanted an 18-month extension of the debt ceiling, particularly so that they could work on their tax cuts without having to be rudely interrupted by a fiscal cliff. They also wanted enough wiggle room to forget about the Dream Act with no leverage left for the Democrats. Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi knew this, and they wanted to hold onto their leverage on both taxes and immigration.

Given that Republicans control the White House, the House and the Senate, one would think that they carried significant upper, and as the party out of power, Democrats would have to negotiate down.

But that's not what happened. Donald Trump, by all accounts to the astonishment of the GOP leadership and his own Treasury Secretary, quickly accepted the Democratic offer, then took off on Air Force One to North Dakota, taking with him North Dakota Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp. Ryan, McConnell, and other Republicans were shell-shocked. Democrats now have what they want. They have neutralized Trump's own threat of a government shutdown without funding for his wall, they have knocked a powerful GOP leadership, and they have rolled the Republican agenda along with the Republican president.

How did this happen? Conservatives are fuming, and the media is still trying to understand. But I suggest that the roots of this had been sown in events of the past eight months, as well well as the prior eight years. Republicans essentially rolled themselves. Donald Trump essentially had no choice but to cave to Democrats, because Republicans created this path.

Trump Sees Ryan and McConnell as Disloyal

Especially McConnell. Trump blames McConnell for not getting a repeal of Obamacare through the Senate. He blames the Republican leadership in Congress for failing to quiet their members who criticized him for his support of racists in Charlottesville and his Muslim ban. He is ticked off at Ryan for issuing a statement against his reversal of DACA, and at both Ryan and McConnell for allowing their members to break with the administration on this issue. Foremost of all, however, Trump is angry that Republican leaders won't shut down the Russia investigation.

Donald Trump entered the presidency believing that he was the CEO and the Republican Congress was merely his rubber-stump advisory panel. Due in small part to their need to arrest some viability to Hispanic voters, and in much larger part due the internal dysfunction of a party that had only learned to obstruct in the past decade, Republicans simply could not do so.

Republicans Simply Cannot Deliver By Themselves

Republicans have been screaming about repealing Obamacare for seven years, and when push came to shove, they simply could not deliver. They passed bills to repeal Obamacare until the cows came home when Barack Obama was president, because they knew their votes had no actual consequence, as the President at the time would be waiting with a veto pen. As soon as they gained real power - and with it, actual responsibility - they were unable to pass a repeal, let alone a replacement.

While that outcome gave America breathing room, saved health insurance for tens of millions, and kept in place patient protections for hundreds of millions, it also exposed the inability of Republicans to govern. At least, it exposed their inability to govern by themselves when they are given unfettered power.

More than just complicating the math of Republican tax cuts - which is really why they wanted to get rid of the Affordable Care Act - it put into question whether Congressional Republicans could even agree on a tax cut legislation to pass it in the face of unanimous Democratic opposition. Would a plan with too many cuts in federal programs to pay for the tax cuts alienate the middle-Right? Would a plan without severe cuts in those programs turn off the far-Right? Could anything really appease the alt-Right?

Trump is Tired and Just Wants a "Win"

The GOP's spectacular crash-and-burn on Obamacare, the trump-Russia investigation from both Congress and the Special Prosecutor, consistent protests, and his own habit of flying off the handle have all been wearing Trump down. He hasn't suddenly become a less evil person, but for Trump everything is, well, trumped by his desire to score a 'win.' He doesn't care what the cost of it is - if he did, he wouldn't have rescinded DACA just to spite his predecessor - he just wants a 'win,' and he wants positive news coverage. And even someone as obtuse as Trump understands that he needs Democratic votes to raise the debt ceiling.

Republicans Created Debt Ceiling Politics, and They Have No One Else to Blame

But why does Trump need Democratic votes to raise the debt ceiling? There was a time in American politics when the debt ceiling was raised as a matter or routine business and no one made a fuss about it. The debt ceiling isn't raised, after all, to pay for new spending; it is increased to pay for spending Congress has already authorized.

So the raising of the debt ceiling was a routine matter until a black man became president. It was then that Republicans suddenly started caring about debt limit. They wanted to use it to derail President Obama's agenda, shut down the government, and do anything they could to Obstruct President Obama. Many Republicans demanded corresponding spending cuts, and yet others gleefully waited for the nation to default on its obligations.

Republicans made the debt ceiling into a political weapon, a political hostage. Although they did so at a time when, similar to their Obamacare repeal votes, the consequences of their petulance were tempered by the adult in the White House, it has now come back to bite them. Republicans have not only succeeded in weaponizing the debt ceiling, but they have actually convinced their base - and elected true believers who believe - that raising the debt limit is actually a bad thing to do as a matter of principle rather than just as a protest vote.

Because they have convinced their base so and because they now have in their ranks in Congress these true believers, the GOP leadership simply do not have enough Republican votes to raise the debt ceiling despite the fact that they control every lever of power in Washington. Because there simply are not enough Republican votes that are unwilling to default on the national debt, Ryan, McConnell and Trump had no choice but to go to Pelosi and Schumer hat-in-hand to beg for Democratic votes to do so.

Pelosi and Schumer simply named the price for delivering the votes. Trump may have capitulated quickly, but there was hardly another option for him.

The Consequence

There are Democrats who are questioning why Pelosi and Schumer did not use their leverage now to bundle the Dream Act with this deal, and there is some value to that discussion. The answer would seem to be the following:

First, his was a budget related package, and introducing non-budgetary items could not only have complicated things but ran the risk of running afoul of parliamentary rules on reconciliation.

Second, attaching the Dream Act to this package would have given Republicans an easy out to vote against immigrant kids under the guise of 'fiscal discipline. A clean Dream Act is what Democrats want, both for the good of the country and to put Republicans on the spot.

Third, if Republicans agreed to such a demand, it would have set aside DACA as an issue, and allow the Republicans to put all hands on deck for one last attempt to repeal the ACA. In one of the developments this week, the Senate parliamentarian has ruled that reconciliation instructions expire at the end of September, meaning after that, Republicans would need 60 votes in the Senate to change Obamacare's funding and tax structures.

Democrats have scored a victory without losing anything. A vote on the Dream Act will have to happen - and they are making sure of it by making sure they will be able to force such a vote in three month's time should it not have passed already. And they will be able to do it without allowing Republicans their last shot at a 50-vote Obamacare repeal.

Today, I'm feeling good.

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