WASHINGTON — Relegated for months to playing defense, congressional Democrats are rising again. They’ve been revitalized by the deal their leaders cut with President Donald Trump this week and by a trickle of GOP retirements that have boosted their hopes of capturing House control next year.
It’s unlikely the startling agreement between Trump and top Democrats on increasing the federal debt limit, which surprised and undermined Republicans, augurs an era of broad bipartisan cooperation. Trump has shown no clear governing philosophy, can abruptly shift views and still favors policies Democrats abhor like erasing the Obama health care law. Many Democrats find it hard to even contemplate working with him.
For now, however, Trump’s agreement with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to extend the government’s borrowing authority and keep agencies open for three months gives the Democrats plenty of clout. When Congress revisits those must-pass issues in December, Trump and GOP leaders will need Democratic votes, opening the door to possible Republican concessions on protecting young immigrants from deportation, bolstering President Barack Obama’s health care statute and other issues.
The House sent Trump the legislation Friday — which he quickly signed — with the three-month extension plus $15 billion in aid for victims of Hurricane Harvey. In the 316-90 result, all 90 “no” votes came from the chamber’s 240 Republicans, underscoring the likelihood Trump will need Democrats in December.
“It gives us a possibility for passing the Dream Act on that bill,” Pelosi told reporters Friday. That’s a Democratic measure that would chisel legal safeguards into law for about 800,000 immigrants brought to the U.S. as children and now here illegally.
GOP congressional leaders wanted the borrowing increase to last beyond the 2018 elections, which would have stolen that opportunity from Democrats.
Also feeding the Democrats’ swagger are retirement announcements by Republicans in Democratic-leaning or swing House districts. Departing Republicans include Reps. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, Washington’s Dave Reichert and Florida’s Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
Democrats must gain 24 seats in November 2018 to win House control, a steep climb. But 23 Republicans represent districts that Democrat Hillary Clinton won in last year’s presidential election, including Reichert and Ros-Lehtinen. Democrats are further heartened by numerous candidates emerging in districts around the country, and a history of congressional gains by the party that doesn’t hold the White House.
“They have a president working against them,” said Rep. Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, who leads the House Democratic campaign organization. Citing Trump’s frequent clashes with GOP congressional leaders, Lujan said, “I think that has the Trump base very concerned with them.”
Pelosi said Trump’s standing in public opinion polls in the next few months will be key to Democratic hopes next year because that is when office-holders and challengers make decisions on running. The president has been registering below 40 percent approval, which is dismal.
Additional GOP lawmakers are considering retirement, and those numbers may grow if the Republican drive to cut taxes hits roadblocks in Congress, said three party consultants. The operatives, who spoke on condition of anonymity to reveal private conversations, described a high level of anxiety within the GOP, fed by a frustration over the party’s scant legislative accomplishments.
On the legislative side, some moderate Republicans are encouraging future compromises between Trump and Democrats. Rep. Peter King of New York said the president asked him at a White House meeting Thursday how the bipartisan outreach was going.
“I said, ‘You and Chuck. The two of you in the room,’” said King, referring to Schumer. “‘We can make some good deals.’”
But for conservatives, Trump’s pact with Democrats and others like it are nightmarish. They offer support for early GOP worries that a politically agnostic Trump’s only goal would be to claim credit for middle-of-the-road deals, squandering Republican control of the White House and Congress.
That mood was highlighted at a closed-door House Republican meeting Friday, when top administration officials seeking votes for the debt-spending-disaster bill got catcalls in response.
Conservatives said they were repulsed by combing aid for storm victims with the idea of authorizing more borrowing, which they instinctively oppose. In the past, they’ve supported borrowing legislation if it has included provisions curbing federal spending.
Packaging disaster funds into a bill boosting borrowing without spending constraints is a “mess,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., adding that with the GOP controlling Washington, “I thought it would be a lot more fun than it is.”
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., head of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said he believed Trump’s deal with Democrats was “a one-time thing.” He said it was driven by the need to rush recovery money to Texas and Louisiana coupled with Trump’s desire to clear the autumn for tackling the GOP goal of tax cuts.
But Meadows said Democrats could correctly claim a victory: “It’s the first time that I can recall that we’re increasing the debt ceiling without something conservative being attached to it.”
The prospect of cutting deals with Trump was proving a dilemma for some Democrats.
Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., applauded an apparent “swerve toward pragmatism.” But he said Trump’s “morally repugnant” actions like defending neo-Nazis who fueled a riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, was a “barrier between what would otherwise be some real bridge building.”
Associated Press writers Erica Werner, Julie Pace, Matthew Daly, Kevin Freking, Mary Clare Jalonick, Laurie Kellman and Richard Lardner in Washington and Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed.