The House and Senate return to the Capitol after Labor Day and face the grim task of raising the national debt ceiling to avoid US default on its obligations.
While the vote itself is a relatively simple one, the politics surrounding the vote are anything but simple. President Trump has made it more complicated.
Even though Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has urged Congress to pass a “clean” debt ceiling measure, Trump has poured gasoline on that idea by connecting the debt ceiling increase with funding for his border wall, threatening to shut down non-essential parts of the federal government if he doesn’t get his way.
Congressional Democrats are unlikely to support a debt ceiling increase tied to border wall funding and would privately chuckle if a Republican president caused a government shutdown out of political pique.
There is no evidence funding Trump’s border wall would overcome the ideological objections of enough GOP conservatives to provide the votes to raise the debt ceiling.
Mnuchin first raised the need to increase the debt ceiling in March. Now he says it must be increased by the end of September or risk a federal government default.
In the recent past, increasing the debt ceiling – and forestalling uncharted economic consequences if it isn’t raised – has been accomplished with bipartisan votes. GOP congressional leaders have been forced to defy their conservative wing and deal with Democrats. Accommodating Trump would make that political formula impossible.
Trump’s unrelenting attacks against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, along with other GOP leaders, hasn’t created a climate of brotherly love and trust. The President’s pardon of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s conviction of contempt of court related to racial profiling has roiled, not smoothed the political waters, creating yet another potential distraction.
With only a dozen days in session for the House and 15 for the Senate during September, there isn’t time for distraction.
Getting Congress to increase the debt ceiling has typically required presidential prodding, starting as far back as Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Even though raising the debt ceiling accommodates spending already approved by Congress, many Members of Congress grow queasy at the thought of constituents conflating past out-of-control spending with future out-of-control spending. Without presidential pressure, Congress has little incentive to crawl out onto this particular political plank.
As he has with so many other norms, Trump has broken with tradition. Until recently, he never brought up the need to raise the debt ceiling. His initial comment was to criticize GOP congressional leaders for not trying to pass it as a rider to a popular veterans bill approved just before the August recess. His next comment was to link the already tenuous vote with the contentious question of funding a border wall that Trump promised campaign supporters that Mexico would pay for, one way or another.
McConnell and Ryan have indicated their intention to raise the debt ceiling with as little political fur-flying as possible. That probably means a debt ceiling measure with no riders to assure Democratic votes. If Trump is still paying attention, he could rile up the GOP conservative base, making the vote even more miserable for Republicans.
The historic storm that crashed into Southeast Texas creating submerged areas the size of Lake Michigan and dislocating thousands of people could offer a timely political off-ramp for the debt ceiling vote. Trump chose the eve of Hurricane Harvey’s landfall last week to pardon Sheriff Joe and issue an official order on transgender people in the military. The President is headed to Texas this week to survey the damage. He may find it useful to talk about massive federal assistance. This could be the perfect distraction that lets congressional leaders slide through the debt ceiling increase.