If you’re paying attention to the political news right now, you might come to the conclusion that President Donald Trump and Democrats are making deals over Republicans’ heads on some of the biggest issues facing Congress this fall, like immigration and the debt ceiling.
But don’t call it a deal. Don’t even call what they’re doing negotiating, at least not to Republican leaders in Congress. They’ve gone out of their way this week to downplay whatever it is that Trump and Democrats are doing right now with their newfound friendship. And that makes sense. This whole buddy-buddy thing with the other side doesn’t look great for them, and it arguably doesn’t look great for the president.
“It is right and proper that the president talks with the other party,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., told reporters Thursday, the morning after a sort-of deal was made with Democratic leaders and Trump to move quickly to protect dreamers. But, he said: “These are discussions not negotiations.”
Ryan repeated that nuance about discussions vs. negotiations over and over in his short news conference. Talking is different from making policy, he appeared to be saying.
Democrats would disagree with how to define their talks with Trump at a Wednesday dinner. But Thursday’s follow-up to it may have proved Ryan’s broader point that nothing is set in stone in this Washington.
Democrats thought they had the outlines of an agreement with the president to protect young adults in the country illegally, but Trump quickly clouded the water the next morning. Will dreamers have a path to citizenship? Will Trump stand down on his wall? Was there even a deal? That appears to be all up in the air right now.
There is a “deal to make a deal,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tex., told reporters Thursday.
Ryan is not the only Republican trying to get reporters to stop hyperventilating about the Democrats and Trump’s newfound relationship to at least discuss things.
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Last week, Trump sided with Democrats over Republicans on fiscal issues, effectively allowing Democrats to force another showdown in December over raising the debt ceiling and spending. Trump’s decision came hours after Ryan had told reporters that just raising the debt ceiling only through December was “ridiculous and disgraceful.”
Republican leaders begrudgingly obliged and passed legislation they knew Trump would sign, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was eager to talk to The New York Times a few days later about it. Democrats celebrated prematurely, an uncharacteristically chatty McConnell said.
“One of the advantages of being the majority leader is you control the paper,” McConnell said.
In other words: Democrats can strike deals all they want with the president, but Republicans are the ones that write the bills, put ‘em on the floor for a vote and get the votes for it. The same thing goes for the House of Representatives, where the majority party has near-absolute power to decide what gets voted on. Ryan made that point Thursday, too: “I think the president understands he has to work with the congressional majorities to get any kind of legislative solution,” he said.
Republican leaders are undoubtedly saving face for themselves, reminding everyone that they’re the ones in charge of legislation.
But in downplaying Democrats’ dealmaking with Trump, you could argue they are doing the president a favor.
Democrats were quick to get out in front of what happened. They issued a statement announcing that Trump had agreed to protect young adults in the country illegally and that he did not demand money for his border wall in return.
That’s not a great look for a president who made his name on being tough on illegal immigration and on building his wall.
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The next morning, an energetic Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., was caught on a hot mic on the Senate floor recapping the dinner. “He likes us,” Schumer appeared to say about the president, while giving a laugh that sounded somewhat incredulous. “He likes me, anyway.” Schumer went on: “Here’s what I told him: Mr. President, you’re much better off if you do one step right, and one step left. If you just step in one direction, you’re boxed. He gets that.”
Trump tried to do damage control with his infuriated base by reminding everyone that he hadn’t given up on the wall. But it certainly still looked like the president had signed a deal with Democrats that was anathema to some of his campaign promises.
Ryan and McConnell would like you to know that just because Democrats say there’s a deal doesn’t mean there is one - a narrative they very much need to get out for their sake and the president’s.
Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.