Debt ceiling fight: It’s go time and a deal isn’t locked in yet

Posted at 7:31 AM, Jul 18, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-18 11:07:10-04

All eyes are on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and those telephone calls with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and the bottom line is simple: every day there is less time and getting a deal locked in becomes more essential.

It’s go time and everyone is keenly aware of the clock.

The good news? Pressure = movement on Capitol Hill. This is when breakthroughs happen, deals are made and long-held entrenchments recede.

Bad news? There is no deal yet and even one sticking point can derail progress.

The wild card? Opposition from some in the administration, who have been trying to undercut the progress being made. But Pelosi, who spoke to Mnuchin on Thursday morning, told CNN’s Phil Mattingly on Thursday that she trusts that the Treasury Secretary speaks for the administration, saying bluntly: “Yes.”

About that timeline

The House plan as of now is still to leave at the end of next week. Leaders have maintained they’d like to have a deal by Friday at the latest in order to process everything and be ready for a vote by the end of next week. The reality is these things take real time to put together. Does that mean it’s doomed if we don’t have a deal in the next 36 hours? Not necessarily, but time is a real factor here.

That said, Republicans aren’t required to come to the table on Pelosi’s timeline. A short timeline might give Democrats an advantage to apply pressure, but Republicans aren’t going to throw in the towel just because Pelosi is prepared to stick to the House’s calendar. Republicans could use next week’s exit to attack vulnerable Democrats relentlessly over the recess if that continues to be Pelosi’s position. More on that in a minute.

The sticking points

These negotiations are being tightly guarded and that’s a sign of progress in a lot of ways. You don’t have either side flaunting their negotiating positions or throwing cold water on the talks.

There is still work to be done on the non-defense spending number and how precisely Republicans and Democrats deal with paying for that VA Mission Act. And, it is true that coming up with an agreement on offsets takes longer to negotiate than people expect, but things are still progressing in a positive way, according to people on all sides of this.

Mnuchin mentioned that himself in an interview with CNBC when he said the administration has reached an agreement on “top-line numbers” with House and Senate leaders for a two-year budget deal along with a long-term debt ceiling increase.

“The good news is we’ve reached an agreement in the administration, House and Senate on top-line numbers for year-one and year-two,” Mnuchin said speaking on CNBC. “We’re now discussing off-sets as well as some structural issues and we’ve agreed as part of that deal there would be a long-term two-year debt ceiling increase.”

From the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, on Wednesday: “We will be fine, because we will submerge our differences for the greater good,” he said. “I hear that we’re closer than we were. Closer. And if we’re going to get a deal, we’re going to get one soon.”

The division factor

One thing to watch for: Pelosi has had her hands full with a divided caucus lately. No fight has ripped the caucus apart quite like the emergency border supplemental funding fight did and there are some fears in the caucus that this spending negotiation could once again reveal deep schisms within Pelosi’s ranks. If Pelosi walks away from negotiations with a non-defense spending number that progressives view as way too low, that could spell trouble once again.

CNN talked to Rep. Dan Kildee, a Democratic congressman from Michigan, on Wednesday who said there are some real concerns that the party needs to learn to govern in the majority and both sides — moderates and progressives — have to come to terms with what it means to actually legislate.

“It heightens a lot of anxiety about whether or not we can get there,” Kildee said of the last spending fight. “I think there are some who are just focused on stating a strong position and sticking with it and that is what we have to be able to overcome … We got to get folks to a place where they understand that if passing something out of the House made it law, we would be in a different position. We got our work cut out for us. It’s kind of a thread the needle situation.”

Short-term solution

Pelosi continues to say that she’s opposed to a short-term agreement. As CNN has previously reported: that is a public position and isn’t necessarily immovable. Watch for softening on that if things truly don’t come together because the last thing Democrats really want is to go home for a month, watch the effect debt ceiling uncertainty has on the markets and be forced to answer questions in moderate districts where members are on the frontlines for their reelections. Attacks would be all about how the Democrats have time for impeachment votes and testimony from special counsel Robert Mueller but not to raise the debt ceiling.

Disclaimer: President Donald Trump has to sign whatever deal is negotiated. Nothing matters until the President signs off. That is always hard to guarantee. See: health care, tax reform, spending negotiations of the past and immigration compromises that were torpedoed by the administration hours before a vote.

Mnuchin said he’s had daily conversations within the administration, including with acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Vice President Mike Pence and Trump, before he departed for the G7 finance summit in France. He also said he spoke with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy on Wednesday.