Congress and the White House are moving toward an ambitious budget deal, but the big question still remains: What will President Donald Trump do?
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republican senators are pushing Trump to accept an agreement with Democrats that would avoid stiff budget cuts, steer clear of a potential default and provide a huge measure of certainty through the presidential campaign.
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Trump has been warm to the proposal as it’s taken shape, according to multiple senators who have spoken with him in recent days. But GOP backers of a deal fear a last-ditch push from hard-line conservatives inside the administration and Congress to reject any bipartisan compromise.
So as Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin close in on a deal that would keep shutdowns and credit scares off the table, Senate Republicans aren’t taking any chances — particularly after the longest shutdown in U.S. history occurred just six months ago.
“I’ve talked to him about it. He’s supportive,” said Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), a close Trump ally, who conceded there’s still a measure of uncertainty over what the president will do. “I think he would support that. I never speak for the president. It depends on what’s in there.”
There’s plenty of reason to be concerned.
Trump nearly killed the last sweeping budget agreement. He also rejected a government funding bill last December after administration officials — including Vice President Mike Pence — initially signaled the president would sign it. That set off a 35-day shutdown that badly damaged the GOP.
Republicans who have spoken with Trump say he’s already upset about higher domestic spending levels preferred by Democrats, who have pushed for parity on defense and domestic spending increases.
And Trump’s Republican allies know the president is a wild card, even if a budget deal could pass with strong support from both sides on Capitol Hill.
But Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has warned Trump that “chaos is not good” and that the differences between the two parties in a multitrillion-dollar spending deal are minuscule when compared to the benefits, especially for the Pentagon.
Graham’s advice to Trump: “If you get a reasonable deal, take it.”
“It’s in everybody’s interest after this recent [shutdown] debacle to show you can actually govern the country. I think he got that,” said Graham, who played golf with Trump this past weekend and is eager to avoid sharp cuts to the defense budget that would kick in without a bipartisan agreement. “What we want is no chaos between now and October.”
“There’s some pretty good optimism right now. But it could all blow up,” said a Republican senator familiar with the negotiations. “If we get a deal, I’m going to call him immediately and tell him: ‘Mr. President, this is brilliant.’ Because we need to start reinforcing before” budget deal opponents start whispering in Trump’s ear.
Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and acting Office of Management and Budget Director Russ Vought have preferred freezing spending at current levels. The two senior officials have been present in meetings with Mnuchin, though recently the Treasury secretary has been speaking mostly to Pelosi by telephone.
Pelosi and Schumer have stated that a deal is getting close. But some in the administration have their doubts. One administration official said that House Republicans are seeking restraints on future spending and that Trump isn’t signing something many GOP lawmakers will oppose, even if Republican leaders back it.
“The president has always been open to a good deal, but he’s not going to be pushed into a bad deal because of a fake deadline or because Pelosi is desperate for a PR win before she goes on vacation,” the official said. “Democrats keep promising they won’t hold the debt limit hostage, so there’s no reason to rush the process.”
An administration official close to Mnuchin said he’s essentially operating under the assumption that Trump will agree to whatever is presented to him by the Treasury secretary unless Mulvaney takes an issue with the deal. That’s a possibility, a number of GOP sources said.
Mulvaney “could become a real obstacle,” said a White House official of the former conservative House member-turned-Trump consigliere. Republicans are worried Mulvaney’s budget slashing instinct could kick in as the deal approaches.
Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who is also close to the president, said he wants to offset any spending increases with commensurate cuts but admitted that’s a long shot amid Democratic opposition.
“Congress has dodged its responsibility to provide fiscally sound solutions,” said Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) and other senior members of the Republican Study Committee, which is calling for offsets that would leave no net increase in spending. “As the largest caucus of conservatives in Congress, it is the Republican Study Committee’s duty to insist upon better stewardship and to oppose irresponsible efforts to raise discretionary limits.”
Senate Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said a more achievable win for Republicans would mean growing defense spending at a faster rate than domestic spending. But he said emphatically that Trump “does not want” a budget freeze. And McConnell has been urging a deal between the president and Pelosi for months.
Party leaders in both chambers are closely watching what happens with the House Freedom Caucus, a group of conservative Republicans led by Reps. Mark Meadows of North Carolina and Jim Jordan of Ohio. The two lawmakers speak to Trump frequently and were among those who urged him to reject the funding bill last winter. They predicted the president would win a shutdown showdown with Pelosi. That didn’t happen.
While the Freedom Caucus leaders are likely to oppose any budget bill, how they do it is important. If they stir opposition among outside conservative groups — and in the conservative media — that could tip Trump against the deal. If their opposition is muted, that makes it easier for Trump to sign off on an agreement.
This time, Meadows and Jordan are opposed to any shutdown, but they have warned Trump that a deal on a total, “top-line” spending figure is not enough, even if Trump gets what he wants on a debt-ceiling increase, according to sources close to the issue.
Democrats could still seek to insert “poison pills” in the individual spending bills that fund the government, such as getting rid of the Hyde Amendment language barring use of federal funds for abortions, these lawmakers warn. If Trump and Hill Republican reject those provisions, it could trigger a shutdown. Conservatives want assurances from Democrats that won’t happen.
Republicans and the White are also seeking tens of billions of dollars in offsets in return for new spending, which Democrats won’t agree to. And some GOP lawmakers want new restrictions on future spending. Democrats note that Trump and the Republicans passed a tax cut that increased the deficit by $2 trillion, so they don’t believe the GOP has any credibility on the deficit.
Yet what’s most important to many Republicans is to avoid anything that could lead to a shutdown or default. They’re looking to avoid any doubt when it comes to what the president will sign.
If Trump doesn’t take the deal, “I’ll call him and suggest he reconsider,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.).
“There are political advantages for Speaker Pelosi and President Trump to have a two-year deal,” added Cramer, who played down the influence of hard-line fiscal conservatives. “If they don’t like it, they can vote no.”