Trump Signs Debt Limit Suspension Tied to $15 Billion Storm Aid

  • Measure also temporarily keeps government open through Dec. 8
  • Trump-Democrat deal creates fiscal cliff before holidays

House Vote Clears Debt Limit, Harvey Aid Package

President Donald Trump signed legislation Friday to stave off a potential U.S. default on its debt and provide $15.25 billion for hurricane relief under a deal he worked out with Democrats that infuriated conservative Republicans. 

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced the signing in a Twitter posting, saying the measure would provide “much needed support for storm survivors. Our thoughts and prayers are with all impacted.”

With 90 Republicans voting in opposition, the House agreed to suspend the statutory limit on the nation’s borrowing authority, keep the government open through Dec. 8, and replenish the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s coffers just as the second major hurricane in a month is primed to strike the U.S. mainland.

Immediately before the vote, House Republicans were infuriated at the sales pitch for the deal by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House budget director Mick Mulvaney. In a private meeting, lawmakers hissed and groaned when Mnuchin told them, "vote for the debt ceiling for me," said Mark Walker of North Carolina, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee.

It was an "incredibly weak performance" by the Treasury secretary, Walker said. Representative Dave Brat of Virginia called Mnuchin’s comments "intellectually insulting." Despite the grumbling, 133 Republicans voted for the deal. All 183 Democrats who voted supported the measure. The Senate approved the bill on Thursday.

To many Republicans, Trump’s deal with Democrats showed that even with their party in control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, they can’t easily accomplish their goals. Conservatives wanted spending cuts and a longer-term debt limit extension. House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin backed the bill despite calling the Democrats’ proposal “ridiculous” and “unworkable.”

Sanders brushed aside Republican lawmakers’ complaints about the president’s deal with the opposition party.

“He’s going to continue to work with whomever is interested in moving the ball forward for the American people," Sanders told reporters at a White House briefing. “We’re less focused on what makes Congress happy, and more on what makes Americans happy.”

Upper Hand

Republicans say Democrats may gain the upper hand in negotiations when the short-term agreements are due to expire in December. Democrats are pushing to increase spending for domestic programs in exchange for increases in military spending that Trump wants. The agenda will also likely include Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico, his decision to end a program that lets undocumented immigrants brought illegally by their parents stay in the U.S., and perhaps the debt ceiling.

Many GOP members said they had little choice but to support the measure because funding is urgently needed for disaster relief.

“Of course I have to vote yes. It’s my district that was hit,” said Representative Blake Farenthold, whose Texas district includes Corpus Christi and much of the area along the Gulf of Mexico damaged by Hurricane Harvey. “The saving grace of this is we can revisit the debt ceiling in a couple of months and maybe get some spending reforms.”

The bill will provide FEMA’s disaster relief fund with $7.4 billion, plus $450 million in funding for the Small Business Administration and $7.4 billion for the Community Development Block Grant program to address housing needs in disaster zones. Tens of thousands of people on the Gulf coast suffered flood damage from Harvey, and Hurricane Irma is poised to strike Florida over the weekend.

The bill, H.R. 601, also extends the nation’s flood insurance program to Dec. 8, a high priority in the wake of Harvey and Irma.

An earlier version of the bill containing just Harvey aid passed the House on a 419-3 vote Wednesday. Trump then surprised Republicans by agreeing to attach the short-term debt ceiling and government funding bill, even though the final bill doesn’t include funding for a border wall. In May, Trump suggested a government shutdown in September would be needed to force Democrats to fund the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Bruising December

The legislation sets up a bruising December for Congress, which is already attempting to rewrite the U.S. tax code by the end of the year. December presents big opportunities for congressional Democrats and risks for Republicans.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California had advocated for a short-term debt ceiling increase to obtain more leverage in December talks over a final spending deal for fiscal 2018. 

Democratic leaders, knowing their votes are needed to pass a debt ceiling increase, plan to seek higher domestic spending in those talks. They may use the occasion to push for legislation exempting undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children from deportation.

Schumer said his hopes for an immigration deal have been raised by the "happy ending" that Trump provided to the September fiscal debate. Trump and Democrats also discussed working on a deal to end periodic debt ceiling votes, an idea that splits Republicans.

“For many years, people have been talking about getting rid of debt ceiling altogether,” Trump told reporters Thursday at the White House. “And there are a lot of good reasons to do that, so certainly that’s something that will be discussed.

Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky lost the fight over the length of the debt ceiling extension at a tense Oval Office meeting Wednesday, hours after Ryan denounced a short-term debt extension in a press conference.

"The longer, the better for the stability of the credit markets. That’s my strong opinion," Ryan said afterward. He added that in agreeing to the short-term extension, Trump "was interested in making sure that this is a bipartisan moment while we respond to these hurricanes."

— With assistance by Shannon Pettypiece

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