"Intellectually insulting": House conservatives bristle at Mnuchin's patronizing pitch to raise the debt ceiling

I can’t remember the last time a cabinet member managed to piss off congressmen from his own party this much. Even allowing for the fact that to some extent Mnuchin was a whipping boy today for the Freedom Caucus’s annoyance with Trump, the reaction is brutal.

He was doing them a favor by meeting with them, frankly. The whole point of Trump agreeing to a short-term debt ceiling hike with Schumer and Pelosi was to neutralize conservatives. The more House Dems are willing to vote for a particular deal, the less leverage Mark Meadows and his caucus have to extract spending cuts for their votes. That’s a lesson that may stick with POTUS when the Freedom Caucus tries to use the next debt-ceiling standoff in December as leverage.

“[Mnuchin’s] performance [at today’s meeting] was incredibly poor, and his last words, and I quote, were ‘vote for the debt ceiling for me,’” said Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, a group that opposed the bill.

“It was a very arrogant lecture that turned off more of the conference,” added another RSC member. “I’m less sold than when I walked into the meeting.”…

Mnuchin’s presentation was “about as well received as his wife’s Instagram post,” Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.) quipped to The Hill, referring to a recent controversy about social media posts by the Treasury secretary’s actress wife.

Dave Brat, whose upset of Eric Cantor a few years ago was a harbinger of the Trump era, said, “The comments from the Treasury secretary today were not helpful. I found them to be intellectually insulting.” The “do it for me” pitch was especially grating, apparently, because of how little Mnuchin seemed to care about justifying his and Trump’s support for a clean debt-ceiling hike. It’s one thing to take away House conservatives’ leverage for shrinking government, it’s another to shrug when they demand an explanation and pat them on the head. According to Walker, “One of the questions was, ‘What does the debt ceiling look like in December?’ and he could not answer that question.”

But it got worse:

Most rank-and-file House Republicans don’t know Mnuchin and more than one said they believed he was a Democrat, based on his previous donations to political candidates.

A source in the room described Mnuchin’s performance as one where the treasury secretary clearly did not understand the long-simmering frustrations among conservatives when it came to raising the debt ceiling without spending cuts. Mnuchin further irritated conservatives when he left the meeting because of other commitments with roughly a dozen members still in line waiting for him to answer their questions.

When they asked Mnuchin to reassure them that Trump wouldn’t sell them out again three months from now, the response was “crickets,” in Brat’s words. House conservatives have two problems right now: One is that the president may acquire a taste for bipartisan deals, leaving them out in the cold, the other is that even if Trump is willing to confront Democrats over a debt-ceiling hike, his demands are unlikely to line up with the Freedom Caucus’s. (A third problem, I suppose, is that, er, most GOP voters don’t care much about conservatism.) Trump wants to build the wall, not to slash spending or, lord knows, to reform entitlements. If Schumer and Pelosi meet him halfway on that somehow, with extra money for border security, Trump’s not going to hold up a deal just to make sure the Freedom Caucus is taken care of. He’s going to sell them out again, and then Meadows and company will have a hard decision to make. Do they try to teach Trump a lesson about how valuable their votes are by opposing him the next time he needs to pass something big on a party-line vote? Bear in mind that these guys come from deep red districts. Blocking the president won’t go down well with voters back home, no matter how useful doing so would be in showing the White House that conservative votes in the House can’t be taken for granted.

If the new and improved centrist/independent Trump 2.0 really does emerge in full flower, as Never Trumpers have feared, the Freedom Caucus will end up in a nightmare scenario where not only do they have no leverage over policy, they’re perpetually at risk of pissing off their own constituents by trying to block Trump. At least when Obama was president and vetoing everything the House passed, Meadows and Brat et al. could know that they were on the right side of their own voters. Not anymore if Trump starts to drift left. Worse, some of the strongest conservatives inside the White House are predictably lining up with POTUS, not the Freedom Caucus, on the debt ceiling. Mick Mulvaney, a staunch fiscal conservative during his time in the House who was willing to play hardball on the debt ceiling, made the case today to his old caucus to support a clean hike this time. (And was duly razzed for it.) Mike Pence reportedly is on board with the idea of ending the debt ceiling altogether, although rather than abolishing it by statute, Pence reportedly favors the “Gephardt Rule” approach of raising the debt ceiling whenever a budget is passed. Who’s whispering in Trump’s ear these days about cutting spending? Anyone?

By the way, despite the Freedom Caucus’s unhappiness, around two-thirds of Republicans in both the House and Senate voted for the Trump/Schumer/Pelosi compromise. That’s an omen of how little leverage conservatives might end up with if Trump starts dealing with Dems.