The week wrapped up with Congress putting the finishing touches on a bill to finance relief and recovery from Hurricane Harvey, only to leave residents of Florida and adjacent states staring down the barrel of an even larger and more powerful hurricane. But the storm itself and associated dealmaking brought an unusual dynamic to Congress, with Democratic congressional leaders pronouncing themselves rather pleased with President Donald Trump’s willingness to reach agreement and congressional Republicans feeling miffed.
Rank-and-file caucus members in both parties have some grievances with party leadership and don’t always fully share that assessment. But it at least offered a window into a possible version of politics in which Trump governs more like the populist outsider he campaigned as and less like a front man for an ideologically orthodox agenda.
The relative comity was all the more surprising because Trump kicked the week off with an immigration measure that outraged Democrats and seems destined to be a major political flashpoint in the near future.
Hurricane Irma battered the Caribbean
Irma emerged this week as one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes ever, the result of an unusual confluence of weather circumstances that generated a storm that features a deadly combination of vast size and powerful wind. The landmasses impacted by the hurricane so far were mostly small and lightly populated, which is for the best since the devastation wreaked was incredible. And the storm is expected to hit Florida, which is neither small nor lightly populated, over the weekend.
- Caribbean devastation: Images from Barbuda, St. Martin, and the US Virgins Islands show massive devastation with cars and boats tossed around and widespread destruction of buildings. The small island of Barbuda, in particular, has barely any undamaged buildings remaining.
- Blackouts in Puerto Rico: The storm ended up skirting past Puerto Rico, doing less damage than was once feared but still leaving about a million people without power. Those blackouts will intersect with the long-brewing government bankruptcy crisis on the island, with the harsh austerity imposed on Puerto Rico by bond owners making it difficult to restore services in a timely manner.
- Florida in the crosshairs: The giant storm appears to be headed more or less directly for the major South Florida population centered around Miami, and it’s large enough to cause storm surges up and down both coasts. States of emergency have already been declared and the federal government is standing ready to move in with supplies.
Donald Trump ended DACA
Way back in 2012, Barack Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which bestowed formal protection from deportation and legal work permits to about 800,000 people who arrived in the United States illegally as children years ago. At a September 5 public event, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Trump administration was canceling the program with a six-month implementation delay.
- Legal pressure: The timetable was dictated by the attorney general of Texas, Ken Paxton, who threatened to file a lawsuit charging that the program was unconstitutional. Sessions endorsed Paxton’s view and said that was why the program was ending.
- DREAMers in limbo: Thanks to the six-month delay, DACA recipients — the so-called DREAMers, named after the failed 2010 DREAM Act that would have granted them legal status — are not at immediate risk of deportation. And they can hope that Congress passes a law to help them before the risk emerges. But fundamentally, nothing is certain.
- What’s next? Virtually all Democrats plus a healthy share of Republicans say they want to do something to help DREAMers. But there are three separate pieces of legislation that would help, and no uniform consensus on which one to advance. And the bigger hurdle is that House Republican leadership would have to be willing to bring a bill to the floor. Comprehensive immigration reform had majority support in the House in 2013, but most House Republicans were opposed so it never came for a vote.
Donald Trump changed his tune on DACA
Having sent his attorney general out to declare DACA unconstitutional in the morning, by Tuesday night Trump tweeted that if Congress does not act within six months he will “revisit” his decision then.
- Internal disagreement: At his Tuesday morning statement, Sessions strayed from legal issues to also opine that DREAMers are costing native-born Americans thousands of jobs (a sentiment that experts overwhelmingly disagree with) as well as being unconstitutional. If that’s true, it’s not clear what there would be to revisit. But Trump’s personal tweets continually extend hope to DREAMers in contrast to Sessions’s apparent desire to shut the door.
- Art of the deal: One possibility is that Trump simply wants to use DACA as leverage to secure Democratic votes for other immigration-related priorities. Depending on how good a deal he got, that could paper over the apparent divide inside the GOP and even his own administration.
- What’s possible? Ideas floated right now include conservatives who want to swap DACA for the ultra-restrictionist RAISE Act and progressives who think Democrats should try to use the debt ceiling as leverage to force a vote on a bill to protect DACA. More plausible dealmaking probably lies in the realm of border security measures, possibly including something that would let Trump declare victory on a wall.
Democrats struck a deal with the White House
Donald Trump walked into the Oval Office with congressional leaders of both parties on Wednesday. Democrats proposed a three-month extension of the debt ceiling and a three-month Continuing Resolution to keep the government open bundled together with extra money for FEMA to pay for Hurricane Harvey. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell said no, but Trump said yes. Voilà, a deal.
- Republicans are mad: The deal is obviously not a triumph for progressive policy on substance, but GOP leaders see it as greatly complicating their legislative calendar by forcing them to return to bipartisan dealmaking before the New Year rather than focusing on the push for tax cuts.
- Could Trump go Arnold? At the same time, the volume of Hill Republican caterwauling about the deal is out of proportion to the objective stakes. The real issue is that Republicans are nervous about the fact that the president has little history of connection to their party or movement. The fundamental anxiety is that Trump — like Arnold Schwarzenegger before him — will end up essentially cutting loose from the institutional GOP and governing as a popular moderate.
- Democrats are hoping for more: Democratic leaders were, frankly, somewhat terrified seven or eight months ago that Trump would pursue a conciliatory legislative path and become unbeatable. But today, with Trump’s approval ratings dismal and Democrats needing to defend a number of senate seats in deep red states, they would legitimately welcome a more bipartisan Trump as a useful way to make policy progress.