by THE EDITORIAL BOARD · September 12, 2017
Was President Trump’s bipartisan hurricane relief/debt ceiling/government funding deal last week simply a “bipartisan moment,” as the House speaker, Paul Ryan, put it? Probably, given this president’s pattern of poor impulse control and of reverting to base politics. But it’s tempting nevertheless to imagine what Mr. Trump might achieve if he could see beyond momentary, tactical wins. Hints of bipartisan consensus are popping up in Congress around enough significant issues to suggest that a determined, strategically minded president — yes, we know, but bear with us — could strike a number of important deals.
The legislation Mr. Trump signed on Friday provides $15 billion for hurricane and flooding victims and includes measures to keep the government funded until Dec. 8, instead of Sept. 30, and to extend the nation’s borrowing authority. The extension delays the type of Tea Party-led showdown over spending and debt that has shut down the government before, but it also forces Republicans to engage in this politically damaging fight on the eve of an election year.
Mr. Trump struck this bargain under the disapproving noses of his party’s own leaders, Mr. Ryan and the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, in an Oval Office meeting with his new pals “Chuck and Nancy”: the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, and the House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi. Gleeful at media coverage of his shockingly bipartisan move, Mr. Trump called Mr. Schumer last week to talk about keeping up the good work. So how could these unlikely allies actually make headway? Here are a few areas where capital insiders believe progress is possible:
NATIONAL FLOOD INSURANCE PROGRAM This season’s devastating hurricanes in two states that voted for Mr. Trump make this an obvious prospect. Last week’s deal granted an extension until December of this inefficient, heavily indebted program, which was set to lapse on Sept. 30. Given that Florida and Texas will require billions in payouts, this is a ripe moment for Congress and Mr. Trump to get behind an overhaul of an outmoded program that does nothing to discourage people from building, and rebuilding, in areas prone to catastrophic flooding. They could take steps to put the program on firmer financial footing by better tying premiums to risk, buying out homes susceptible to repeated catastrophic flooding, updating mapping to reflect current climate and flooding patterns, and helping policyholders finance improvements, like raising their homes, that would reduce payouts later.
HEALTH CARE Congress must vote by Sept. 30 to extend the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides coverage for nine million low-income children. Democrats see the legislation as a vehicle for an amendment to extend for a year Affordable Care Act subsidies that reduce deductibles and co-pays for lower-income enrollees. Conservatives would normally have little interest in this, but state governors of both parties are demanding that Congress extend the A.C.A. subsidies now. Insurers must sign Obamacare participation contracts by Sept. 27, and action before then would encourage insurers to re-up, and help stabilize rates. Senator Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, favors extending the subsidies. Instead of following through on his threat to blow up Obamacare by withholding them, Mr. Trump could sign on, and choke off a pointless partisan fight on an issue he’s already lost.
DREAM ACT Mr. Trump’s announcement last week that he intends to rescind President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals order, protecting 800,000 young undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children from deportation, was widely unpopular. The DACA program will now expire in six months, plunging these immigrants into limbo, and so far, Congress has done nothing but talk about helping them. Democrats see some hope in Mr. Trump’s seeming lack of commitment to his own draconian edict — last week, “Nancy” persuaded him to tweet reassurance to those affected. It’s a slim reed, but they hope he will pressure Republicans to act on the Dream Act, a 16-year-old proposal to resolve these immigrants’ legal status permanently. Republicans, no doubt aware how it would look to subject 800,000 young people to deportation in a congressional election year, say they’re working on it, but on Monday the Senate Judiciary Committee postponed a hearing on the issue. Congress is deeply divided over immigration policy, but the DACA deadline should stir decisive action.
As difficult as those items might be, there are other, tougher possibilities.
INFRASTRUCTURE In February, Democrats called Mr. Trump’s bluff on his promise for a $1 trillion infrastructure spending program by sending him an outline proposal. The response? Radio silence. Mr. Trump has no plan, only vague suggestions of spurring investment through tax incentives. Democrats want direct spending. For that to happen, Mr. Trump would have to roll even more Republicans than he did on Friday. Given his lack of preparation, it doesn’t look likely, but this is one job-creating promise his voters should expect him to keep.
TAX REFORM Mr. Trump has said he will cut taxes for working Americans, but so far, the White House has released only broad principles, including some, like tax cuts for the wealthy, that Democrats will not accept. House Republicans on the Ways and Means Committee were working to write a major tax-cut bill to avoid closing 2017 without a single big legislative win. That’s looking like a pipe dream, and for Mr. Trump to move what he says is a top priority, he needs a plan that at least some Democrats can support. “Chuck and Nancy” want a plan that doesn’t add to the deficit and that includes the promised middle-class tax cuts and a modest trim to corporate tax rates financed through closing tax law loopholes. They don’t want tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. A compromise will be long, if ever, in coming.
Mr. Trump and his new Democratic friends could work on more. They could raise spending caps set to kick in next month by matching increases in military spending that Republicans want with increases in domestic spending that Democrats favor. They could back a proposal to automatically increase the debt ceiling, ending perennial partisan battles over what used to be a routine vote essentially recognizing the debts Congress has already incurred.
They could agree that a “wall” on the Mexican border is a dumb idea and focus on fixing the broken immigration system (that’s a real dream — Mr. Trump has threatened to shut down the government over spending on the wall).
Given the continuing Russia investigations, bipartisan bitterness, the limitations of the legislative calendar and Mr. Trump himself, we have no real reason to expect his bipartisan impulse to harden into practice. But we still hope that the president who has said making deals is how “I get my kicks” might want to turn last week’s one-off into a streak.