President Trump shocked and angered Republicans on Wednesday by agreeing with Democrats on a bill to suspend the debt ceiling for three months, but by Thursday, Republican lawmakers and aides were acknowledging that Trump's plan was better for Republicans than the plan put forward by House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
Many Republicans weren't all that happy with either proposal. Ryan was proposing an 18-month suspension of the debt ceiling that would have let the government keep borrowing as much as it needed, and said the long time frame was needed to provide for market stability.
But Democrats said they could only agree to a three-month suspension since they wanted leverage more immediately for other issues they want to pursue in the coming weeks. Trump's decision to take the Democratic plan was seen by some as a betrayal of Republicans, and a sign Trump was abandoning the GOP on a key legislative package.
After the dust settled, however, Republican lawmakers and aides made it clear they saw the three-month plan as a slight improvement over Ryan's plan.
The reason was simple.
Neither plan involved a commitment to new spending cuts as a condition for allowing more government borrowing, something many conservatives wanted to see. With that key piece lacking, many Republicans preferred a shorter term agreement for the same reason Democrats did: it will let them try much sooner to leverage the next debt ceiling fight for their own policy prescription, in this case, spending cuts.
A source with the conservative House Freedom Caucus said that group has not met to discuss the plan that Trump settled on Wednesday. But this source said many members of the group seem to agree that both deals were bad because neither included a commitment to spending cuts.
"Lots of members think the three-month deal is bad, but so is an 18-month deal," this source said. But the source added that the shorter timeframe will at least let them try again soon, and in that way, is better for Republicans.
"[HFC] members don't want to sit on their hands," the source said.
HFC members, in particular, see the debt ceiling deadline as a chance to threaten not to vote for an increase in the borrowing limit until spending cuts are included. When the battle heats up again, the HFC is expected to push for a cap on federal spending based on a percentage of U.S. gross domestic product.
The HFC is a relatively small group of conservative lawmakers known for clashing with House GOP leaders. The Republican Study Committee, in contrast, is more mainstream and is comprised of most House GOP lawmakers for the purpose of advancing conservative policies.
But even the RSC indicated Wednesday that Trump's deal is better for Republicans than what Ryan was pushing. For example, RSC member Tom Cole, R-Okla., said Wednesday that he preferred Trump's plan over Ryan's.
"I think a short-term deal is much easier to vote for than an 18-month or two-year extension with no offsets," he said on MSNBC, describing the choices that were put before the GOP. Cole cast the deal Trump reached as a slight delay that will let Republicans try again soon for spending cuts.
"I think a much worse deal would have been to extend the debt ceiling with no spending cuts," he added. "So we live to fight another day."
A senior House GOP source said congressional Republicans and the Trump administration were originally on the same page, and were shooting for a longer-term debt ceiling plan.
"The congressional Republican plan was the White House's plan," this source said. "The plan was always a longer term extension, and per the White House's demand, it would be clean."
This source noted that even Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin supported the longer-term plan.
"The operating plan was that McConnell would add a longer term clean extension on Harvey," the source added. "There was never much concern over the length until Democrats floated the shorter extension and surprisingly got it."
But this source also acknowledged that House Freedom Caucus members and others were complaining about that plan, and conservatives seemed to make it clear that they liked the final result more than they liked the original plan.
RSC Chairman Mark Walker, R-N.C., wrote a letter to Ryan on Thursday saying the group's steering committee wasn't happy with the deal Trump negotiated with Democrats. "Worse yet is attaching the debt limit to legislation that continues the status quo or even worsens the trajectory on spending, such as the deal announced yesterday by the president and congressional leadership," he wrote.
But a spokesman for the group agreed that Ryan's plan was worse since it would have removed the GOP's leverage for spending cuts for an even longer period of time.
"What we are hoping with a three-month deal is we will have a chance to have a bite at the apple," said spokesman Alexei Woltornist. "Yes, it is bad, but it is less bad than 18 months."
Congress was set this week to pass the deal Trump negotiated, which would suspend the debt ceiling until Dec. 8. A suspension means the government can borrow whatever it needs to operate, and at the end of the suspension period, the debt ceiling takes effect again, and the new debt ceiling is whatever level of debt the U.S. has racked up by that date.
Because the Treasury Department can take steps to limit borrowing for several months once the U.S. has hit the debt ceiling, there is some chance that the next vote on the debt ceiling will not be in early December, but several months into 2018.
For the same reason, Ryan's proposal to suspend the debt ceiling for 18 months would have allowed the government to use these "extraordinary measures" well into 2019, after the mid-term elections.