Opinion

Opinion: How Trump and the Democrats Spared McConnell and Ryan

The Art of the Backroom Deal

President Donald Trump and Democratic leaders did House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a huge favor by working out a deal on disaster relief, the debt ceiling and government funding, Allen writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan want you to know they’re plenty angry about President Donald Trump’s trifecta deal with Democratic leaders on keeping the government open, averting a debt-limit crisis and sending aid to hurricane-and-flood-ravaged Texas.

McConnell and Ryan were “shell-shocked” when Trump, in a meeting with congressional leaders of both parties, opted to go with the plan favored by Senate and House minority leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, according to a CNN source. After all, Ryan had publicly said their proposal — the obvious solution to all three legislative headaches — was “ridiculous.”

You could almost see the whites of McConnell’s eyes growing red in reading reports of the Kentucky Republican, mouth drawn, stalking out of the White House.

Timing is everything

But GOP leaders protested just the right amount, methinks. In remarks Thursday, Ryan was notably circumspect about the president’s prerogative to work with the minority party. Their outrage, generated and sustained in background quotes from people familiar with the meeting, doesn’t match their actions.

On Thursday, the day after the White House confab, McConnell rushed the bill to the floor in his chamber, where it passed with 80 votes — out of 100. Ryan followed suit, sending the measure to the president with 316 House votes. Yeah, 90 of his own Republicans voted against it. But the majority of them were in favor.

Ultimately, McConnell and Ryan got exactly what they wanted — and so did the rank-and-file members who too often feel that they’re at the mercy of a loud minority that so often portrays them as traitors to the cause.

So, what happened?

Trump and the Democratic leaders did McConnell, Ryan — and most Hill Republicans — a huge favor. They kneecapped the nihilist faction of the GOP.

With Trump’s lead role in negotiating the deal, the most hard-core limited-government Republicans could oppose the bill. But they couldn’t put pressure on their colleagues to do the same. That meant it would pass easily.

Neither McConnell nor Ryan had to try to play the heavy in rounding up votes for a debt-limit increase, a continuation of government operations or hurricane relief. These are issues that, despite their centrality to basic governance, have bedeviled GOP leaders of recent vintage.

For his efforts to govern, former House Speaker John Boehner was all but deposed. After years of walking a tightrope between the id of the Republican base and the responsibility of his position, McConnell’s national approval ratings hover somewhere in the neighborhood of Ebola.

Duck and cover

But with Trump providing air cover — GOP leaders and rank-and-file lawmakers could vote for the bill without fear of Trump stirring up the tea party base against them — McConnell and Ryan could do their jobs, show a little disdain for the outcome and live to fight another day.

They were permitted to have it both ways. Surely, some people will see the process as typically reptilian behavior from Washington’s swamp creatures, both Democratic and Republican.

The GOP base wanted more of a fight to control spending, and many Democrats are annoyed at their party’s leaders for doing anything with Trump.

But when Republicans and Democrats conspire to reach the right outcome  — and do it in a way where both sides can reap rewards and avoid real recrimination — the American public wins.

It’s not yet clear what this means for how Trump will deal with Congress in the coming years, the future of Republican leaders who are still taking some heat from the base, or the possibility that Democrats are helping Trump build his case for re-election. The deal itself is hardly as complex as tax reform, saving or killing Obamacare, or even a real appropriations bill.

For the first time in recent memory, though, the government worked, in bipartisan fashion and without the now-familiar histrionics of threats to shut down federal operations, plunge the nation into default, or condition spending for disaster victims on cuts to other essential programs.

This narrow agreement was a perfect example of how Washington can thrive on backroom dealing and a little public theater.

If they haven’t already, Trump, Schumer, Pelosi, McConnell and Ryan should get together at some point to toast their handiwork. Of course, McConnell and Ryan will want to make sure the White House photographer is nowhere to be found. 

Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is a co-author of “Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 16 years.

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