Inside McConnell’s Last Fight Before Becoming a Lame Duck

Inside McConnell’s Last Fight Before Becoming a Lame Duck

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has once again turned his back on his House GOP counterpart and Republican voters.

Congress is hurtling towards the rolling shutdown deadlines of March 1 and March 8. The Washington establishment would have one believe that the time and cash crunch is the fault of raucous Republicans in the House, where House Speaker Mike Johnson has razor-thin margins. If Republicans are on the receiving end of another raw deal come March 1, however, fault lies not with Johnson and House conservatives but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. For McConnell, who announced that he will be stepping down from his leadership role come November in a shock Wednesday announcement, it may well be a parting legacy.

For the fourth time since October, Congress is faced with another deadline to avoid a partial government shutdown. When this Congress has faced shutdowns in the past, some conservative members have made their peace with a government shutdown if conservative priorities weren’t addressed.

Some conservative members are now supporting a full-year continuing resolution (CR), however. McConnell has made advancing GOP priorities, particularly forcing the Biden administration to execute the law on the southern border, nearly impossible by siding once again with his Democratic counterpart Chuck Schumer and President Joe Biden. If the government does shut down, it will be because McConnell has, at almost every turn, sown discord and disunity throughout the GOP by undermining Republican priorities. In the past six months, the Senate GOP leader’s own conference has rebuffed his commands, particularly when it comes to government spending and Ukraine aid. From this position of weakness, McConnell repeatedly doubled down and dangled campaign funding from Senate leadership over the heads of GOP senators like the sword of Damocles.

Disquiet turned to unrest. “There have been behind closed doors discussions on another attempt to replace him as leader,” one Senate Republican staffer familiar with the matter told The American Conservative. “[McConnell] might not have been aware of this, but his people were probably smart enough to know that there were people having these sorts of conversations.”

”He’s announcing this now because he knew he had a rebellion on his hands,” the staffer added. ”He was no longer leading the conference in any real way.”

Rep. Matt Rosendale of Montana put it this way in an email to TAC: “If Republicans aren’t on the same page regarding the border, Ukraine, or spending toplines, it undoubtedly negatively affects our ability to govern.”

Eli Crane, a representative from Arizona, won’t be shedding any tears when McConnell goes to his vine and fig tree. “Our leadership, especially in the Senate, is perfectly content managing the decline of this country. I wish McConnell the best, but it’s time for him to go,” Crane told TAC via email shortly before McConnell announced his pending departure. “His priorities are out-of-touch with everyday Americans, and he’s obsessed with burning the hard-earned tax dollars of our people in Ukraine instead of fighting tooth and nail to secure our borders. How are we supposed to mount a meaningful opposition when our own weak-kneed leadership undermines us at every turn?”

On Tuesday, President Biden met with Johnson, McConnell, Schumer, and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries to continue working on avoiding a government shutdown.

Of the 12 appropriations bills that need to pass, only four—Agriculture, Veterans Affairs, Transportation-HUD, and Energy and Water—have a deadline of March 1. After the White House meeting, Johnson said, “We have been working in good faith around the clock every single day for months and weeks, and over the last several days, quite literally around the clock to get that job done. We’re very optimistic.”

“We believe that we can get to agreement on these issues and prevent a government shutdown, and that’s our first responsibility,” he added. 

Schumer was also feeling optimistic. “There was a little back-and-forth on different issues that different people want, but I don’t think those are insurmountable,” Schumer told members of the media Tuesday. “The fact that we made it so clear that we can’t have the shutdown because it hurts so many people in so many different ways, even for a short period of time, was very apparent in the room.”

“The Speaker did not reject that,” Schumer continued. “He said he wants to avoid a government shutdown. So that was very heartening.”

Nevertheless, Schumer believes a CR, not appropriations bills, are the way to go. “To not shut the government down means we need CRs. And we told that to Johnson,” Schumer told PunchBowl News.

There’s another likely reason Schumer left Tuesday’s meeting at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. feeling heartened. McConnell reportedly spent much of his time pushing for the sans-border-security supplemental. As Jake Sherman of PunchBowl News put it, “MCCONNELL told JOHNSON that the Senate’s foreign aid bill is the only game in town.”

With Republican control over the House and Democrat control in the Senate, passing the needed appropriations bills seems increasingly unlikely. Nevertheless, there are other options on the table for Congress to consider.

The first, and most dissatisfying result for GOP legislators, is another short-term CR that continues current funding levels from the previous fiscal year—a budget set by former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Schumer (who received aid from McConnell) and Biden—that will not trigger any cuts. This is the kind of CR Schumer wants and McConnell seems to be helping him get.

Johnson has signaled he’s willing to go forward with a short-term supplemental that extends funding deadlines to March 8 and March 22. Johnson’s Press Secretary Athina Lawson said, “Any CR would be part of a larger agreement to finish a number of appropriations bills, ensuring adequate time for drafting text and for members to review prior to casting votes.” But without a bipartisan agreement in hand Friday that at least addresses some GOP concerns, Johnson is willing to let the government shut down.

The second option is a medium-term CR that extends funding past April 30. If April 30 passes by and the government is being funded via CR, a one-percent cut for discretionary spending kicks in. This provision was part of the Fiscal Responsibility Act (FRA), the debt deal struck by Biden and former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy last year.

Another provision of the FRA, however, could kick in if Congress decides to fund the government via CR for the rest of the fiscal year and begin work on the FY2025 appropriations process, which by statute should begin in April. A full year CR would run into discretionary spending caps, set at $1.590 trillion in total, put into place by the FRA. The cut to government spending in a full-year CR scenario is an estimated $73 billion or 10 percent.

That is where things get murky, however.

FRA negotiations included several “side deals” that used some creative accounting to effectively increase non-defense discretionary spending by $69 billion, which would bring total discretionary spending to $1.659 trillion. Nevertheless, those “side deals” were not made law. Even Connecticut’s Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro, House Appropriations Committee ranking member, admitted she voted against the FRA precisely because the “side deals” were “non-binding.” In January, Johnson and Schumer revised the deal previously struck between McCarthy and the Senate majority leader, which shifted some of the side-deal money away from budget gimmicks to internal budgetary offsets. Nevertheless, the caps of $1.590 trillion are still in statute, but Democrats and establishment Republicans in the Senate might suddenly conclude they’re unwilling to fund the government at the reduced levels they agreed to in statute.

Senator Mike Lee of Utah doesn’t see the caps that way, however. “Because of side deals that have been negotiated behind closed doors by McConnell and others, the FRA caps have all but become moot,“ he explained in an email to TAC. “These deals would allow for $54 billion in additional spending, above the FRA caps, to be approved, raising the total expense of these bills to $1.644 billion.”

Nevertheless, Lee thinks a full-year CR is the way to go: “If Congress were to instead pursue a one-year CR we would expend only $1.562 billion, which is well below the FRA cap and even current spending levels. If Republicans are to be taken seriously as fiscally prudent representatives of the American people, a one-year CR is the best option before us for good stewardship of taxpayer dollars.”

The final option is a government shutdown. Previously, Republicans in Congress have called on GOP leadership to stop passing CRs and embrace a government shutdown if conservative demands cannot be met. Back in July 2023, Rep. Bob Good, now the chair of the House Freedom Caucus, said “we should not fear a government shutdown.” Other conservative members expressed the sentiment, too.

Some members of the House Freedom Caucus, however, now support a full-year CR. In a letter to Johnson last week, House Freedom Caucus members wrote:

If we are not going to secure significant policy changes or even keep spending below the caps adopted by bipartisan majorities less than one year ago, why would we proceed when we could instead pass a year-long funding resolution that would save Americans $100 billion in year one?

“A full year CR is different than just a kick down the can down the road temporary CR,” Good told TAC in a phone interview. “A full year CR through September 30 would kick in or activate or kick in the FRA caps that would result in about $100 billion dollars in savings from what is being negotiated currently. It would also cancel thousands of earmarks for both parties worth tens of billions of dollars.”

Good later described a full-year CR as “the best realistic possibility right now that loses the least for the American people.”

Nevertheless, Good told Fox Business on Monday, “The government shutdown is not ideal, but it’s not the worst thing.”

“It would be worse to exacerbate the problem, to further increase our debt and our spending, to make our fiscal situation, which is unprecedented as it is, as you know, to continue to fund a government that’s facilitating the border invasion,” Good added.

Rosendale sounded more enthusiastic about the righteousness of a government shutdown. “The GOP needs to rally behind the idea of no government funding unless our southern border is secured!” Rosendale told TAC. “Passing approps into law is by far and away the most appealing victory that can come out of this current spending battle, it will ensure the deepest cuts and will discontinue Covid-era spending levels. The American people deserve better than the short-term CR to short-term CR style governing that has become standard in Washington.”

If it comes to a government shutdown, Crane is pointing the finger at Democrats and their new lackey McConnell. ”McConnell has been more concerned with escalating a war in Eastern Europe than protecting Americans by securing our border. It’s clear that the American people want to see our border secured. This should be the main priority for every Republican in the House and Senate,” Crane explained. “If conservatives commit to fighting for this objective and McConnell refuses to get on board, and instead, uses his power to pursue a victory for the Uniparty, then he owns a sizable share of the responsibility for a government shutdown.”

It’s difficult enough for Republicans to win the politics of a government shutdown. The Democrats’ structural advantage is nearly total. Keeping the government open requires spending dollars the government doesn’t even have yet. With national debt of more than $34 trillion, it’s not today’s Americans paying for Biden’s spending spree, but their grandchildren. Democrats are completely uninterested in sound money or fiscal responsibility, which means Democrats can always go home and tell their constituents they want to spend the money to fund the government. That places Republicans on the back foot.

While Republican constituents want Washington to stop leveraging their grandchildren’s financial future, few are necessarily thrilled about a government shutdown—the cuts should have already happened. That means Republicans need to make the case that not only current spending levels but underlying politics justify shutting down the government.

Which is why, when government shutdowns do occur, Republicans are often left shouldering the blame. When the government shut down for 16 days in October of 2013 over Obamacare funding, 81 percent of Americans polled by the Washington Post and ABC disapproved of the shutdown. Fifty-three percent of those surveyed blamed the GOP for the shutdown. GOP legislators’ favorables fell to 32 percent; 63 percent disapproved of their work. The government shutdown in 2018 tells a similar story. Another Washington Post–ABC poll found 48 percent of respondents blamed former President Donald Trump and Republicans, while 28 percent blamed Democrats. Eighteen percent said both parties were equally at fault. When the government shutdown again in December 2018, the Washington Post and ABC found 53 percent of respondents blamed Trump and the GOP. Just 29 percent blamed congressional Democrats.

Nevertheless, it’s not all bad news. In the midterms that followed the 2013 shutdown, Republicans expanded their majority in the House and flipped the upper chamber by picking up nine Senate seats. Trump would go on to win the 2016 presidential election. Democrats wound up taking back the House by gaining 41 seats in 2018. In 2020, the presidency and senate went to the blue team.

Righteous government shutdowns are, indeed, possible. Good still might be willing to have one if it comes. “I’d be willing to have a shutdown fight for the American people who understand the spending is unsustainable, and the border invasion is unsustainable,” Good told TAC. “I think we could win a shutdown fight if we’re willing to have it.”

Good might not be wrong. New polling from Gallup this week found immigration is the top concern for Americans by a margin of 8 points. A shutdown over the current situation at the southern border is a relatively straightforward pitch: Until the government can do its foremost priority, protecting the territorial integrity of the United States, it ought not spend time or money doing anything else. In December 2023 alone, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) had more than 300,000 migrant encounters—a record high. Nearly 7.3 million migrants have illegally entered the United States since Biden took office in January 2021. If the Biden migrants became their own state, it would be one of the 15 most populous states in the union.

McConnell, however, has made justifying a government shutdown nearly impossible. As The American Conservative previously reported, McConnell ensured the negotiated border deal attached to the $118 billion supplemental funding package for Ukraine and Israel would fail. McConnell, upon deputizing Sen. James Lankford and other Republican negotiators, ordered the Oklahoma senator to not attach foreign aid in the supplemental to any concrete metric to bring down the number of migrants entering the United States. As Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin told TAC, “McConnell, on his own, told Lankford that’s not even on the table.” With the border deal dead, McConnell was free to do what he and Schumer wanted all along: force a Ukraine funding bill without border security through the upper chamber. So far, the House has refused to consider the bill.

Johnson is still worked up about the border deal. “[McConnell] botched this, he produced such an awful bill. Now he wants to blame Trump and house conservatives.” Johnson became breathless. “I mean, it’s, again, just stunning. Unbelievable!”

Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio wrote about the supplemental funding bill for TAC earlier this month and outlined how McConnell’s betrayal undercut Johnson and embarrassed the GOP. When Johnson fights, “he will be attacked by Senate Republican leaders, at least privately, and will face another negative news cycle. If he doesn’t, his own conference will turn against him.”

Vance gave a prescient warning. “The cycle will replay over the government funding deadline in March,” he wrote. “It will replay over the omnibus debate that follows. It will replay any time the U.S. Congress must actually do something.”

“We have gone from a strong negotiating position in January to one where all our leverage for policy concessions is given away before negotiations begin, Both the Majority and Minority Leaders have the same stated priorities regarding foreign aid, but who is fighting for Republican priorities and a secure border?” Utah’s Lee commented.

“The Republican House majority for 14 months now has battled Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell,” Good claimed.

Rosendale agreed: “Without the support of McConnell in the Senate leveraging items like the House’s HR 2, Speaker Johnson is left without a leg to stand on in the appropriations fight.”

Johnson (the senator) told TAC that McConnell’s actions have placed Johnson (the speaker) “between a rock and a hard place.”

“Ideologically, [Speaker Johnson is] a true conservative, but he’s in an almost impossible position,” Johnson added. “I’ve just seen McConnell undermine the speaker time and time again. Democrats are in a lot better position on the border now than they were three weeks ago. I mean, talk about jaw-dropping political malfeasance.”

McConnell dug his own grave, and is attempting to pull the rest of the GOP in with him. Even though the negotiated border deal ensured that “the border never closes,” in the words of Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, and would actually codify the Biden administration’s dubiously legal parallel asylum system set up via regulation, Democrats can claim that not only are they willing to spend the money but that Republicans just rejected ‘border security.’ McConnell gave them the script.

“Our own Minority Leader has used Democrat talking points against his own conference, undermining our House colleagues in the process, and helped Democrats pass Ukraine funding without border security using a minority of Senate Republican votes,” Lee told TAC. “We should absolutely continue to fight for better policies if a shutdown occurs, but to quote Michael Scott, someone decided to ‘make this way harder than it needs to be.’”

Just as McConnell chose Biden and Schumer over the GOP conference and GOP voters in previous spending fights, he’s once again siding with Democrats. “Shutting down the government is harmful to the country. And it never produces positive outcomes—on policy or politics,” McConnell said in a Monday speech on the Senate floor. “The task at hand will require that everyone rows in the same direction: toward clean appropriations and away from poison pills,” the minority leader added, calling on the House to pick up the Senate’s appropriations bills.

To add insult to injury, while Johnson has a tiny majority in the House, McConnell has what should be a cloture-proof cohort in the Senate. Instead of using the GOP conference as added leverage for Johnson and the GOP, McConnell is leaving Johnson high and dry.

“Why lead Republicans if you’re not going to lead Republicans?” Lee told TAC. “Why ignore border security, at a time when Americans are reeling from stories of illegal immigrant felons killing innocent people across the country?”

For Good, 60 is the magic number. “The House Republican majority ought to be able to get more than the Senate,” Good said. “We only need 217 votes right now, and we’ve got 219. Now that’s a narrow majority, but we do have 219. And the Senate needs 60 votes. Democrats only got 51. Senate Republicans can block just about anything Democrats do. The Democrats in the House cannot do that. If Republicans would unite and do conservative Republican things, we could be really strong.”

From Crane’s perspective, “[McConnell is] not utilizing any leverage the GOP has because he doesn’t want to. It’s disgraceful, but it’s not surprising. I don’t think any leverage the GOP has will be used effectively until McConnell signs off.”

“You’re the supposed Republican leader of the United States Senate, not the chief fundraising coordinator for Ukraine,” Crane said of McConnell. “Americans are being killed because the Biden Administration has cruelly opened our borders and Republican leadership has consistently and corruptly diverted their attention away. We need real leadership, not cowardly controlled opposition.”

“There is still time for Senate Republicans to reflect the will of the American people and demand real border security rather than rubber stamping funds for an administration that is facilitating an invasion of our country,” Lee claimed. “With the right leadership, our conference can refuse cloture, demand consideration of amendments, and keep up personal pressure on Chuck Schumer to blink. But leadership views all this as an impediment to helping Democrats get what they want, which seems to be the real agenda here.”

Johnson would like to see the House Speaker put the pressure on McConnell and the Senate. “The House should pass something and then leave. That’s what I want to see them do. It puts more pressure on the Senate,” Johnson said.

“A full year CR is reasonable,” he continued, “it proves we don’t want to shut down the government, so we passed this. I guess the Senate would have to pass that, or, if they don’t, people voting against you are obviously for the shutdown.”

“[Passing a full-year CR in the House] would be difficult for the Democratic Senate to ignore when it keeps the government open,” Good claimed. “And it’s passing spending at the levels that they agreed to a year ago and were signed into law by the President.”

“Speaker Johnson should stand his ground and not be trampled by the uniparty forces that are conspiring against his fight for a better country,” said Rosendale. “The American people are in his corner and are relying on him to be their voice. He must maintain he has control over the House of Representatives, he does not have to go along with what Schumer and Biden are advocating for.”

“McConnell has been more concerned with escalating a war in Eastern Europe than protecting Americans by securing our border. It’s clear that the American people want to see our border secured. This should be the main priority for every Republican in the House and Senate,” Crane told TAC. “If conservatives commit to fighting for this objective and McConnell refuses to get on board, and instead, uses his power to pursue a victory for the Uniparty, then he owns a sizable share of the responsibility for a government shutdown.”

“Speaker Johnson should stand firm, demand McConnell join conservatives in supporting either HR 2 or a clean year long CR, and tell Democrats they won’t get one more red cent—for Ukraine, or for the salaries of the Biden admin destroying our border—until we listen to the American people and secure their homeland,” Lee told TAC.

Senator Johnson left TAC with some food for thought: “When he became leader in 2007, we were under $10 trillion in debt. Now we’re approaching $35 trillion. And you know who the one constant is in all that time, the one person in every room for every negotiation? Mitch McConnell. This is Mr. Long Game?”

After nearly two decades as the Senate GOP leader, the longest leadership tenure in Senate history, the long game is over for Mitch McConnell.

The post Inside McConnell’s Last Fight Before Becoming a Lame Duck appeared first on The American Conservative.

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