President Donald Trump confirmed early Thursday afternoon that he is open to eliminating the debt ceiling vote altogether — shortly after The Washington Post reported he had entered into a “gentleman’s agreement” with the lead Democratic senator, Charles Schumer of New York to pursue just such a plan.
“It could be discussed,” Trump said. “For many years, people have been talking about getting rid of debt ceiling altogether, and there are a lot of good reasons to do that. So certainly that is something that could be discussed.”
He added that the debt ceiling “will never be a problem.”
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▪ It remains to be seen if he actually follows through on this. Trump has a tendency to spout off and leave all his options open — even options that other politicians would instantly foreclose. Trump’s public comments here are pretty noncommittal — saying it’s under discussion and that the debt ceiling “will never be a problem” (which, what exactly does that mean?) — but he clearly suggests he likes the idea.
▪ If he does this, conservatives would have little choice but to revolt — or completely submit to Trump.
Top conservative groups have already announced their opposition to Trump’s three-month debt ceiling increase, which he shockingly reached with Schumer and the House Democrats’ leader, Nancy Pelosi of Clalifornia on Wednesday. That’s because they see the debt ceiling as a key lever — one of few in their toolbox — to obtain budgetary concessions and prevent future excessive spending. They also see it as a last-ditch roadblock to prevent the government from borrowing too much money.
“Our nation’s debt ceiling should be used as an opportunity to address the federal government’s spending addiction and ultimately get our nation on a path to balance,” the conservative group Heritage Action wrote in urging senators to vote against the short-term deal Thursday.
Heritage Action and a number of other conservative groups, including FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth, wrote a joint letter Wednesday saying, “We, the undersigned conservative organizations, strongly oppose any attempt to raise the national debt limit without significant reforms that put our nation on a path to fiscal balance.”
Among those who used to think the debt limit was a really important tool? Donald Trump himself, of course.
Here are some of his thoughts on Twitter about using it as leverage, from 2011:
“Congress is back.TIME TO CUT, CAP AND BALANCE. There is no revenue problem. The Debt Limit cannot be raised until Obama spending is contained,” Trump wrote on July 6.
He tweeted on Aug. 1: “Disappointed in GOP and Dems---Giving Obama power to raise the debt limit next year is a mistake.”
And from 2013:
“With the debt limit approaching, @GOP has even more leverage. If they stay united and on message they can win,” Trump wrote on Oct. 7.
Nuking the debt-limit vote altogether would constitute Trump depriving these groups of the opportunity to obtain “significant reforms” in perpetuity. It would be neutering them.
If they stood by and took it — as some Republicans were prepared to do with the short-term agreement with Democrats — it would show that they have no confidence in their ability to fight Trump and win on holding the line on conservative policy.
And even if they didn’t support Trump’s plan, if they didn’t vehemently oppose him and effectively declare war, that would say just as much.
The Post’s Paul Kane said it well:
“Trump violating Freedom Caucus/Club/Heritage debt limit orthodoxy at incalculable levels. They’d want to impeach President Jeb/Rubio/Mitt,” Kane tweeted.
That’s exactly right. Opposing Trump has been a very difficult choice for any Republican for the last two-plus years.
But most of the tension has been between Trump and establishment Republicans, who were wary of getting into a fight with the pro-Trump base.
This is something on which the base should, by all accounts, oppose Trump. We may be about to find out if the most principled conservatives have the stomach to stand up to him.