The three or four fiscal conservatives left in the House aren’t going to like that. Mark Meadows, head of the Freedom Caucus, urged Trump to keep the two bills separate a few days ago:
Meadows, who leads a group of hard-liners that has frequently frustrated House Republican leaders, said attaching Harvey aid to a debt-ceiling increase would be a “terrible idea” that would be “conflating two very different issues.”
“The Harvey relief would pass on its own, and to use that as a vehicle to get people to vote for a debt ceiling is not appropriate,” he said in an interview. “That sends all the wrong message: ‘Let’s go ahead and increase the debt ceiling, and by the way, while we’re doing it let’s go ahead and spend another $15, $20 billion?’
“Why would we do a clean bill with a Republican president?” wondered Dave Brat. Use the debt-ceiling hike as leverage for spending cuts! Trump’s not much interested in smaller government even under the best of circumstances, though, and he’s really not interested when FEMA needs billions to drain the literal swamp that the Texas gulf coast has become. Watch below and you’ll see Mnuchin counter Meadows’s point: The debt ceiling and Harvey aid are connected because the emergency spending will push up the timetable for default. If Congress appropriates $8 billion for Harvey now, they’ll have even less time before the end of the month to negotiate a debt-ceiling hike. Do both while you have the chance.
The way this is going to happen, I assume, is with a standalone vote on Harvey relief aid in the House followed by the Senate attaching a debt-ceiling hike to that bill and then sending it back to the House for passage. That way the Freedom Caucus will get to vote yes on the standalone bill, affirming their support for Harvey relief, before voting no on the Senate bill as a protest against a debt-ceiling hike without spending cuts or fiscal reforms. The Senate bill should pass the House overwhelmingly anyway thanks to Democratic support. As of Friday night, Paul Ryan was planning a vote on a standalone bill, but OMB director Mick Mulvaney sent him a letter emphasizing that the new spending will shrink the window for raising the debt ceiling and could put essential services at risk. Mulvaney has all sorts of cred as a fiscal conservative, which may give some reluctant House Republicans cover to vote for a Harvey/debt-ceiling package. House GOPers from Texas, although fiscally conservative, will also swallow hard and support the package for obvious reasons. Ryan should have no problem passing it without the Freedom Caucus.
And if they’re going to kill two birds with one stone, why not … three birds with one stone? Congress needs to fund the government before the end of the month to avert a shutdown; shutdowns are always unpopular but a shutdown during federal relief efforts in Texas would be especially hard to spin. They could tack on a funding package for the entire government as part of the Harvey/debt-ceiling bill and deal with the whole mess all at once. Trump himself has threatened to veto a spending bill that doesn’t include funding for the border wall, but according to Bloomberg the White House has privately made clear to congressional leaders that he’s willing to postpone that fight until December, when the next shutdown threat looms. The president’s prepared to sacrifice one of his signature priorities (for a few months) in order to show that the feds are on the case in Harvey clean-up and operating at full tilt.
His base isn’t happy about it, though, and using Harvey relief as an end-around fiscal conservatives in the House in order to raise the debt ceiling and fund the government with no concessions on spending would be a lot for small-government fans to swallow. Mnuchin is asked about a shutdown here as well and is more equivocal than he is about the debt ceiling — but he does note that Trump’s top priority at the moment is the people of Texas. Hmmm.