Republicans face tough vote on budget bill backed by Trump

Mitch McConnell
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., arrives to speak with reporters following the weekly policy lunches on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 23, 2019.
Susan Walsh | AP Photo

A hard-won, warts-and-all budget pact between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Trump is facing a key vote in the GOP-held Senate, with many conservatives torn between supporting the president and risking their political brand with an unpopular vote to add $2 trillion or more to the government's credit card.

The Trump-supported legislation backed by the Democratic speaker would stave off a government shutdown and protect budget gains for the Pentagon and popular domestic programs. It's attached to a must-do measure to lift the so-called debt limit to permit the government to borrow freely to pay its bills.

For many Republicans it's a tough vote, expected Wednesday afternoon. The tea party-driven House GOP conference broke against it by a 2-1 ratio, but most pragmatists see the measure as preferable to an alternative fall landscape of high-wire deadlines and potential chaos. The government otherwise would face a potential debt default, an Oct. 1 shutdown deadline, and the return in January of across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is confident it will pass despite the misgivings of many Republicans.

But for new arrivals to the Senate, particularly those who ran against a broken Washington culture, the sweeping measure represents a lot of what they ran against: unrestrained borrowing and trillion-dollar deficits, fueled by a bipartisan thirst for new spending.

"This budget process, if we can even call it a process, put taxpayers at the mercy of a House Speaker who has no interest in prudent budgeting," said freshman Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo. "Our system is not supposed to work this way. When the entire federal budget depends on four or five people striking a deal among themselves, something is not right."

The budget and debt bill, however, is a top priority for McConnell, who set up the initial talks — taken over by Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin earlier this month — and pushed to isolate conservative forces in the White House who were disruptive. Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York and House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy of California are also supporting the deal.

For House Republicans, as the minority party, it was easy to take a pass on voting for the legislation. Pelosi also made a point of showing she had enough Democratic votes to push it through without their help. But it's a different dynamic in the Senate, where Republicans hold the majority and are expected to deliver a strong vote for a Trump-backed agreement.

"Given the realities of divided government, it is a strong deal that achieves my Republican colleagues' and my No. 1 priority," McConnell said, citing gains for the military. "The Trump administration has negotiated their way to a major win on defense. The House has passed the compromise legislation. The president is ready and waiting to sign it."

Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said he expected a strong showing by the Senate's Democrats in favor of the bill. And GOP leadership stalwarts like Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, swiftly swung behind the measure, calling it about the best result possible in a legislating matrix that demands Pelosi's blessing for bills to become law.

"So what price did we have to pay to get this? We had to give Nancy Pelosi a four percent increase this year in domestic spending and zero increase next year for an average annual increase that's less than the growth in (gross domestic product)," Wicker said, adding that many House Republicans took the "vote no, hope yes" approach to the legislation.

"I want to know what better deal anybody could have crafted that got Nancy Pelosi's sign-off in the House and Mitch McConnell's sign-off in the Senate, along with McCarthy and Schumer," Wicker said.

The agreement between the administration and Pelosi lifts the limit on the government's $22 trillion debt for two years and averts the risk of the Pentagon and domestic agencies from being hit with $125 billion in automatic spending cuts that are the last gasp of the 2011 budget deal.