The debt-limit deal struck by Donald Trump and congressional leaders Wednesday was immediately reported as a case of two things: Trump selling out Republicans and Trump negotiating badly. The deal calls for extensions from the end-of-September deadlines to Dec. 15 for funding the government and raising the debt limit, while at the same time passing initial Hurricane Harvey relief.
I'm more inclined to agree with author and political scientist Dave Hopkins that while Trump certainly acted as if he was undermining House and Senate Republicans, there's really not much here.
For one thing, virtually everyone should have been expecting the "continuing resolution" to keep the government running until the end of the congressional session. After all, on Sept. 6, Congress simply wasn't anywhere close to completing its work on appropriations; the Senate has barely started. Standard practice, unless someone wants a government shutdown, is to kick the can down the road a few months.
The agreement on the debt limit was harder to predict, and it was certainly plausible that the parties might have agreed to raise it enough to get them past the midterm elections, or even longer. But as Hopkins says, it's not at all clear that there's really anything lost to Republicans with a shorter three-month extension.
The only faction that has threatened to hold the debt limit hostage is the House Freedom Caucus, and it has little or no leverage here. It's true that most members of Congress, especially Republicans who have demagogued on the issue most recently, don't want to vote to raise the debt limit. The blunt fact is they'll have to do it. The endgame is probably to attach the rest of the Harvey relief money and, presumably, Irma relief, and that will provide more than enough votes for the debt limit to pass.
To put it another way: House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer did not appear to have any specific demands to put on either the debt-limit increase or the continuing resolution, so it's hard to see how any of them won or lost in this deal. The only important threat, in fact, had been Trump's bluff to shut down the government unless funding for his border wall was passed, so it's fair to think of him as the loser. Of course, he could still make the same demand in December, and no one would take his bluster seriously at that point, either.
This still leaves plenty of hard bargaining over appropriations, where Republicans have no way to get around Democratic filibusters in the Senate.
Congress scholar Josh Huder reads the agreement as a larger defeat for Republicans: "If you're a Democrat, you just stopped the entire Republican agenda." I rarely disagree with Huder, but as I see it, most of the agenda was already mostly dead, so I'm not sure what further damage this agreement can do. And the one important legislative item that still might be viable, a big tax cut, remains (as I see it) more or less in the same place -- the problem with passing it isn't lack of time, but lack of agreement.
Nothing Trump agreed to Wednesday helps a tax bill move forward, but I'm not convinced that it harms the prospects of a bill, either.