One day after President Donald Trump indicated he would not cut deals with Congress while he’s being investigated, he cut a deal with Congress.
With Trump’s support, the Senate passed a long-stalled disaster aid bill, in the perfect encapsulation of a whiplash-inducing week.
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On Tuesday, hopes of a two-year budget deal rose and fell. On Wednesday, a bipartisan infrastructure meeting at the White House went off the rails, sparking open warfare between Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the president. And with Washington at rock bottom, and Congress preparing to leave for a week-long recess on Thursday, it looked dire for disaster aid.
Yet through backchannel negotiations with senators, Trump dropped demands for emergency border spending and signed off on $19.1 billion in much-needed aid for hurricane, wildfire and flooding victims.
The Senate even took the first set of roll call votes on legislation in weeks — to ban robocalls — after a monomaniacal focus on nominations.
“I’m delighted,” deadpanned Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), who complained on the Senate floor that the chamber had done “zilch” on Wednesday.
Yet the momentary peace was shattered almost instantly. At an impromptu press conference late Thursday afternoon during a photo-op with farmers, Trump lit into Pelosi, who earlier in the day said that the president had committed “impeachable offenses” and was in need of “an intervention” by family and friends. The president lashed out at the speaker, calling her a “mess.”
And when he was asked about progress on a deal to raise stiff budget caps or increase the debt limit, he had only this to say: “I am a very capable person. We’ll see what happens. I can tell you this: Let them get this angst out of their belt and when it is, we can do things so quick your head will spin.”
Disaster aid took months to pull off, an unusual delay for something that was once routine on Capitol Hill and would help popular constituencies like farmers and wildfire victims. And the battles ahead will only be more difficult.
“It’s shocking it takes this long,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “The willingness of the Republican Party, led by Donald Trump, to be constructive and engaged, is absent. He’s led them into a blind alley.”
His counterpart across the Capitol saw things differently and cited a more familiar reason for the disaster aid deal. “This became the only option before the [Memorial Day] break,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the majority whip. “It was the last train leaving the station.”
Even the disaster relief bill was in doubt almost until the end. Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) made a personal appeal to Trump during a call on Thursday afternoon, urging him to take something that was doable.
But like all things with the president, it wasn’t easy: According to four Republican sources, Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) were in the room with Trump and advising the president against separating his immigration money request from the disaster aid package. But Perdue, a close Trump ally, prevailed.
Republicans said that Congress will still have to deal with the humanitarian money requested by Trump. And the House won’t pass the disaster legislation until June because the deal came together after they had already scattered across the country for recess.
Perdue credited Trump for breaking the logjam in a gaggle with reporters that Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) then wandered into. Asked if he agreed, Leahy took a lengthy pause: “I don’t care who gets credit.”
After the disastrous encounter at the White House between Democrats and Trump on Wednesday, Thursday’s drama started as GOP senators filed into a caucus meeting at 11 a.m. with little hope that they would leave with a disaster aid deal in hand.
Democrats were trying to restrict immigration spending, while the administration wasn’t backing off. Marc Short, chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, was on TV Thursday morning to demand funding because “we think it is a crisis” at the border.
Negotiations with the president began shortly afterward, but the mood was grim as Republicans walked into a party lunch on Thursday afternoon.
“I’m so worried that the president has lost focus. … It’s frightening for the country. It’s not that he’s doing something wrong, we’re doing the wrong thing on stuff that ought not be political,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) as he went into the lunch.
Yet the urgency had built through the day, with the knowledge that far harder problems to solve loomed in the next four months. First came a blunt promise to finish the job by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and a simple Democratic suggestion that negotiators drop immigration funding altogether. And after the call with Perdue and Shelby, optimism grew.
“Everybody’s trying,” Isakson said rosily an hour after the GOP lunch. “I think [Trump] now understands and he’ll help us out.”
Shelby then told reporters they were yanking the humanitarian funding for the border and vowed to take it up separately later this year. During the closed-door meeting with Senate Republicans, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, called him to say Democrats would take the deal.
“Spot on,” she told Shelby.
The Appropriations chief then put out a press statement just a few minutes later congratulating Trump for “breaking the gridlock.” Democrats find that sentiment puzzling: They blame Trump for the impasse to begin with, starting with the president’s opposition to Puerto Rico funding and ending with his dismissal of Wednesday’s infrastructure meeting with Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
“The budget talks can proceed with or without the president,” said Schumer, adding, “Each time the president messes in, things get messed up. He’s better off just letting us do our work.”
Whether Thursday’s modest success can translate on tougher issues is anyone’s guess and seems to depend on where Trump stands on any given day. At a minimum, the government must be funded past September and the debt ceiling raised in the following weeks. Infrastructure, drug pricing and immigration reform seem more difficult by the day.
“It’s very uncomfortable. People have to respect each other and work together and move forward. And the president threw a huge dagger into it yesterday,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the No. 3 Democratic leader. “This is a time you keep your head down.”
Just 24 hours after Trump announced in the Rose Garden that he would not work with Democrats on legislation if they kept up the various investigations, White House aides worked overtime to try to soften the president’s threat.
Aides insisted that the new North American trade deal known as the USMCA would still get done and approved by Congress. White House officials hope freshman House Democratic lawmakers will feel pressure to show legislative accomplishments, leading them to support the trade deal and potentially action on drug pricing as well.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that White House staff continued to work on negotiations surrounding the increase of the debt ceiling and budget caps. She also said the president “will look at administrative actions” on border security and lowering drug prices.
Still there’s no guarantee that Trump and Congress will be able to plow through any major domestic policy moves over the next several months apart from avoiding a government shutdown and debt default.
“Without presidential leadership, how do you get an infrastructure bill?” asked Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.).
But if Democrats have doubts about Trump, the president exudes only self-confidence.
“I have been very consistent,” Trump said Thursday. “I am an extremely stable genius.”
Heather Caygle contributed to this report.