Big Budget Deal Is Best Path for Both Trump and Dems




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What if there were a way to make sure the next 21 months are not like the last 42 days? There is. President Trump can commit now, with Democrats, to passing continuing resolutions to fund the government until they have worked out a two-year spending deal designed to cover operations — and raise spending caps and the debt ceiling — until after the 2020 election.

On Tuesday night, at his State of the Union Address, Trump should reset. He can say it’s time to put the shutdown in the rear-view mirror, sign a long-term budget and move on to other priorities. Later fights could certainly include an immigration debate central to his re-election campaign, but they would happen without rattling the economy and tanking his poll numbers.  A big beautiful deal isn’t likely to include a wall, but if it calms the markets and puts an end to what now promises to be an uninterrupted battle from one fiscal cliff to another, it should be done.

Jared Kushner’s white board presentations with Koch associates notwithstanding, it’s folly to think an immigration reform package is set to burst forth two Fridays from now. After being ridiculed for caving to Democrats last week, even by some of his own supporters, Trump appears to be choosing from several options that are bad for both him and his party. The first is a national emergency declaration, which would be challenged in court where the administration would not likely prevail, but Trump could end up vetoing a spending bill that exasperated Senate Republicans pass and dare him to sign, which would shutter government again on Feb. 15.

While he hinted to the New York Times he will declare an emergency, which will force many Republicans on the record to defend Congress as a co-equal branch, Trump also telegraphed a way out in tweets — that the wall has already been built. “Republicans on the Homeland Security Committee are wasting their time. Democrats, despite all of the evidence, proof and Caravans coming, are not going to give money to build the DESPERATELY needed WALL. I’ve got you covered. Wall is already being built, I don’t expect much help!” he wrote. But by days’ end Trump sounded like the wall didn’t actually exist, that it was back to being desperately needed and that pretty soon — as the “crisis” grows — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will be “begging for a wall.”

The conference committee Trump has dismissed began meeting Wednesday on border security, with conferees conceding their end product will be “narrow.” A final package is likely to include: some physical barriers that are likely non-contiguous, increased detention spaces, upgraded detection sensors, and additional immigration judges. Pelosi said bluntly the agreement will not contain any wall funding.

A way out of the impasse is to reach for something larger to change the subject and solve a few problems. That’s why Sen. Lindsey Graham suggested tying an increase in the debt ceiling to the deal that must be brokered over the next two weeks. The debt ceiling is supposed to be reached by March 2, and the Treasury Department is expected to extend that deadline another few months with the use of “extraordinary measures,” but it may be reached sooner than expected as revenues are likely to decline as a result of the shutdown. While Graham succeeded in warming Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to the idea, Trump hasn’t approved at this point. Yet Graham said on CNN: “I think the president understands we need to raise the debt ceiling.” Beyond the debt ceiling, Republicans acknowledge they once again intend to raise the caps on spending from the Budget Control Act to avoid the sequester, or risk reductions in defense spending.

Trump, of course, thrives on brinksmanship. And his buddies in the House Freedom Caucus are already grousing about the need to use the debt ceiling fight to win some spending restraints. They’re aware the Congress will raise the debt level as well as the spending caps dictated by the BCA, but they have some preaching to do about the debt now that they passed the tax cuts and are back in the minority. They’re likely urging Trump to use it as leverage.

Yet while the trademark Trump plan is typically to flood the zone with chaos and uncertainty, keeping a fight over a border “crisis” front and center each day between now and November 2020, the president learned something new in his first month of divided government. His shutdown helped the Democrats and hurt him.

All polling from during and after the shutdown show Trump taking the blame, and a new Washington Post poll out this week backs up a recent Marist survey finding showing 56 percent of respondents will definitely not vote for him again. A pivot of some sort is required if he wants to win back some of the independent voters he lost between 2016 and 2018 and secure a second term. A pragmatic gesture like a big budget deal, presented with some unifying statements in the well of the U.S. House on Tuesday night, would be lauded as “presidential” and smart and would make the Democrats appear small if they disagreed.

And while GOP members haven’t urged it publicly, there is ample appetite among Republicans for pushing through with a kitchen-sink package that eliminates disruption and cuts their losses. They now believe their Senate majority could be in danger next year and they cannot afford another shutdown or a default on our debt.

A GOP House member close to the process said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell supports “an extended deal” that prevents future standoffs. “McConnell is trying to manipulate us to the right place, but I’m not sure the House Democrats want to go there and I don’t think the president understands the need to.” On preserving a debt ceiling fight, the congressman said Pelosi “may want to give [Trump] the rope to hang himself.”

If Pelosi wants voters to learn what Democrats plan to do on health care, the issue that won them their majority back, she should step away from the cliff’s edge and have that debate. If the president wants to get re-elected he will need to close a deal, and he can start by doing a budget deal with House Democrats. If he succeeds there, he can dare them to compromise with him on drug pricing and infrastructure. But if he stays on the brink instead, Trump could drive Senate Republicans into their arms first.

A.B. Stoddard is associate editor of RealClearPolitics and a columnist. 

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