On Wednesday, President Donald Trump did something congressional Republicans once excoriated former House Speaker John Boehner for doing: he undercut his own caucus in cutting a deal with Democrats on a major piece of budgetary legislation.
As when Boehner was the architect, the move drew the ire of numerous GOP lawmakers, who oppose the notion of a short-term spending package to keep the government funded, paired with an increase in the federal debt ceiling without any meaningful spending cuts in exchange.
But unlike the Boehner years, Republicans on Capitol Hill—in particular the small but powerful group of hardliners in the House Freedom Caucus—are basically willing to give the party’s primary capitulator a pass. Few have expressed direct anger with Trump. Most completely exonerated the president for agreeing with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to combine Hurricane Harvey relief funds with a clean increase in the debt ceiling and a continuing resolution to fund the government through mid-December.
“You’ve got to give options for the president to consider. If there’s no conservative option there, ultimately the president making a decision based on what’s best for the country has to weigh all those factors. It’s incumbent on us to put out conservative options. I don’t know of a conservative debt limit strategy that was being offered—do any of you?” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) told reporters.
Asked whether it was the president’s obligation to propose such solutions, Meadows—who is close with the president and whose district is heavily pro-Trump—said he “can’t control what happens in the west wing,” but the onus is on Congress to give the president such options.
Congress did offer Trump some options but none of them pleased conservatives. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested to the president an 18-month debt ceiling increase, an aide familiar with the negotiations told The Daily Beast. That proposal still didn’t have the spending cuts tied to it that conservatives were demanding, and Trump sided with Schumer and Pelosi on a shorter-term deal instead.
That conservatives seem unbothered by the president’s role illustrates the extent to which Trump, not GOP congressional leaders, has come to dominate the political machinations of many of the party’s elected officials. It also wasn’t lost on those who lived through similar fights during the Obama era, when Republican leadership was the target of strident, unabating criticism for crafting government-funding and debt ceiling compromises.
“There’s much more risk involved in attacking the president than there ever has been in attacking GOP leadership, which is one of the reasons why being a leader in Congress is a thankless job. One of the job descriptions is basically letting your members attack you,” Rory Cooper, former communications director for ex-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), told The Daily Beast. “The fact that the self-promoted dealmaker took Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer’s first offer which puts conservatives in a terrible position is not really defensible.”
The president’s deliberate decision to undercut his own party was embarrassing in particular for Ryan, who said just hours before meeting with Trump and his Democratic counterparts that it would be “ridiculous and disgraceful” to tie the debt ceiling to disaster relief. Some of Ryan’s fellow GOP lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), maintained that position in voting against it on Thursday.
But as the rift between Trump and congressional Republicans deepens, the president appears more and more comfortable extending olive branches to Democrats. On Thursday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi successfully convinced Trump to tweet that DREAMers should not worry about deportation in the wake of his decision to rescind protections for children of undocumented immigrants and kick the issue to Congress. Pelosi later revealed that Trump told her he would sign the DREAM Act—reviled for years by most Republicans—if it were sent to his desk. On top of that, Trump and Schumer have reportedly agreed on a plan to scrap the debt ceiling altogether—something conservatives oppose because it would eliminate their leverage in negotiating for spending cuts.
Other Freedom Caucus members and conservatives dismissed concerns about the president working with Democrats at the expense of GOP agenda items. Those lawmakers criticized the terms of the debt-ceiling deal itself. But they were still unwilling to bring themselves to call out the president for signing off on it.
“We should never be focused with deals in the world of politics. We ought to be focused on deals for a particular end,” Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) told The Daily Beast, implicitly criticizing Trump’s deal-making strategy but declining to tie the president’s name to it.
Rep. Bill Flores (R-TX), whose state stands to directly benefit from the Hurricane Harvey funding included in the deal, described it, nevertheless, as a “crap sandwich.” But he declined to blame the president.
“It may be something where there is a feeling of euphoria today but then there’s always the hangover that comes the next day,” Flores told The Daily Beast. “So there will be a hangover from the decision. But look, I’m not being critical of the president either. He did what he thought he had to do. We’ll just see how it works. Not only this week, but longer term.”
The Daily Beast asked Flores if Trump is a reliable negotiator on behalf of Republicans. He sighed twice, pausing for 12 seconds before answering.
“I’d have to unpack that question. Let me think about that one for a while. I don’t have an answer for you. Look, I still trust the president,” Flores said. “I don’t like the idea of cutting a deal with the Democrats. I think politically in December, everybody’s going to be in a worse-off position. That may be the hangover I was talking about earlier. I still trust him.”
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), another prominent conservative, said the onus remains on Republican leaders, whom he argued should have canceled the August recess in order to avoid the type of deal that the president struck with Democrats.
“Lack of preparation sometimes puts you in a position where the choices aren’t great,” Jordan said. “We should’ve prepared sooner. That’s why we should’ve stayed here and not take the longest August recess we’ve taken in 12 years in a non-election year.”
In Jordan’s telling—which reflects the view of much of the Freedom Caucus—Ryan should have started negotiating on the debt ceiling far sooner. Instead, they believe, he followed the Boehner playbook of punting too many times, thereby forcing Congress to cut a last-minute deal that would never end well for conservatives.
“This is typical John Boehner-style politics where—Paul Ryan’s not a John Boehner guy, he can’t do it. And he just lost more than Boehner usually does,” a House GOP aide told The Daily Beast.
The Freedom Caucus’ strategy in dealing with the president has perplexed some on Capitol Hill. But its members are clearly playing a long game with Trump, aware that it’s better to remain loyal for the deals to come—even if the ones now aren’t particularly preferable.
“Everyone paints [the Freedom Caucus] as these people who don’t care about what’s in the realm of possible, it’s just ‘burn it all down’—no, they’re very pragmatic people,” said a House Republican aide not affiliated with the Freedom Caucus. “They’re very intentional with what they do. They’re very pragmatic. … What we have here is a president who’s personality-driven and you just have to deal with him appropriately.”