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Trump wants to avert a standoff by tying a debt limit hike to Hurricane Harvey aid

Here’s part of the administration’s legislative strategy for a challenging month in Congress.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty

The Trump administration is hoping to avert a risky congressional standoff over raising the debt limit by tying the measure to what they hope will be a popular bill providing billions in emergency funding for Hurricane Harvey relief.

“The president and I believe that it [raising the debt ceiling] should be tied to the Harvey funding,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said in an appearance on Fox News Sunday.

Yet Trump’s preference is in conflict with the views of the Freedom Caucus, a group of conservatives in the House of Representatives that has often proved influential in fights over federal spending.

“To use that [hurricane aid] as a vehicle to get people to vote for a debt ceiling is not appropriate,” the group’s chair, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), said last week.

Congress has an enormous to-do list in September, and raising the debt ceiling or debt limit — the cap on the total amount of debt the federal government can issue to pay for spending — is at the top of that list.

Lawmakers and economists from both parties agree that the debt ceiling should be raised and warn that failing to do so would mean a default on the nation’s debt, which could cause global economic chaos.

But in recent years, conservative activists who want to slash federal spending have tried to use this must-pass measure to force through major spending cuts, arguing that the debt limit shouldn’t be raised without them. Democrats oppose those cuts, and in 2011, a high-stakes showdown between President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans ensued over the matter.

Now that the debt ceiling needs to be raised again, President Trump has signaled that he doesn’t want a messy fight over it. But rank-and-file congressional Republicans fear criticism from the right if they vote for a “clean” hike (one without accompanying spending cuts). Politico recently reported that the GOP was not even close to getting enough votes in their own party to pass a clean hike.

Trump now appears to hope that the urgent need for hurricane money can help get the GOP out of this mess — that pairing the debt limit increase with Harvey aid will prove a popular measure that enough Republicans can support.

It’s a strategy Trump has wanted for some time. Last month, he tweeted a complaint that Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rejected his own idea of pairing a debt limit hike with a popular veterans affairs bill. “Could have been so easy — now a mess!” the president wrote.

Still, we don’t yet know whether Ryan and McConnell — whom the president has recently been feuding with — will go along with this strategy of tying hurricane money to a debt limit hike. They’ll have to take the temperature of their own members and see if enough of them like the idea, particularly when it’s possible that conservative activist groups will rebel against it.

To get such a bill past a Senate filibuster, congressional leaders will need Democratic support, too — and, if many House conservatives defect, Democratic votes will also be necessary in that chamber. So we’re still a long way from a resolution here.