As compromises go, this one hardly merited the name. Yet even small concessions by Congress’ self-avowed legislative Grim Reaper, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, get attention for their rarity, and send politicos and journalists scrambling for explanations.
On Wednesday, the minority leader abruptly caved and released his cynical stranglehold on essential legislation to lift the nation’s borrowing limit, less than two weeks before the United States would have had to default on debts incurred by presidents and Congresses of both parties, provoking turmoil worldwide. Markets breathed easier, but the reprieve is short-lived. Under McConnell’s terms, the debt limit would be extended just into December, simply delaying the reckoning.
A decade ago, when Republicans similarly risked a default on President Barack Obama’s watch, McConnell chortled afterward that the must-pass increase in the debt ceiling is “a hostage worth ransoming.” Yet this time he has asked for nothing from President Joe Biden and the Democrats who run Congress; there have been no demands for spending cuts like those Republicans pocketed as the price of their votes in 2011.
McConnell has been getting what he wants: chaos and dysfunction, to be blamed on Democrats and to undermine Biden’s already battered claim to competence and bipartisanship.
Democrats do bear plenty of blame. They’ve been putting their divisions over the president’s domestic centerpiece, a pair of bills for infrastructure and for social welfare and climate spending, on self-defeating display. The spectacle has contributed to a continued slide in Biden’s job approval rating, which is now at Trumpian lows. The imminent McConnell debt-limit crisis added to the bind they were in.
By late Wednesday, however, McConnell apparently decided the risk of blame to his own side had gotten too great. He had insisted Senate Democrats provide all the votes to lift the limit and cover the nation’s obligations, including to troops and veterans, Social Security beneficiaries, and schools. Yet when the 50 Democrats tried to do so (with Vice President Kamala Harris as tiebreaker), he filibustered. Corporate donors were complaining publicly, a few Republican senators privately.
Hence, his tactical retreat. For now.
McConnell remains Washington’s obstructionist in chief, unless his own party is in power or – as now – it is in his political interest and his party’s to allow some action. Since arriving in the Senate nearly 37 years ago, to a singular degree McConnell’s goal has not been to pass legislation and to address the nation’s problems, but instead to gain power. Even the legislative issue for which he became best known, other than those benefiting Kentucky’s coal and tobacco industries, is a political one: opposing campaign finance limits.
At 79, McConnell is exactly nine months older than Biden; they overlapped in the Senate for a quarter-century. By the time he arrived in Washington, amid the Reagan era and conservatives’ ascendancy in the Republican Party, McConnell had opportunistically shed the progressive stands he’d taken as a young man in Louisville: for organized labor, civil rights, gun controls, abortion rights and even campaign-finance limits.
Decades before today’s Republican efforts to suppress voting, or at least to oppose anything that encouraged it, McConnell opposed federal legislation to make voting registration easier nationwide and supported voter-identification requirements. He boasted that blocking campaign-finance limits was his proudest accomplishment.
Even George W. Bush has attested to McConnell’s partisanship. He wrote in his memoir that McConnell was so worried that Republicans would lose their Senate majority in the 2006 midterm elections that he asked Bush to withdraw troops from the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq. Bush told McConnell he’d “set troop levels to achieve victory in Iraq, not victory at the polls.” Republicans did lose their Senate and House majorities. McConnell, as minority leader, then led Republicans’ opposition to Democrats’ legislation calling for a troop drawdown in Iraq.
With Obama’s inauguration, amid the worst recession since the Great Depression, McConnell sought to block his agenda at every turn. The following year, he told an interviewer with infamous candor: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
In a biography of McConnell by Alec MacGillis, appropriately titled “The Cynic,” a close Republican ally, the late Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah, is quoted describing McConnell’s approach to Obama’s proposed Affordable Care Act: “Our strategy is to delay this sucker as long as we possibly can, and the longer we delay it the worse the president looks: ‘Why can’t he get it done?’”
McConnell, who’s already said he’s “100%” devoted to obstructing Biden’s agenda, is using the same page from his playbook against the president’s Build Back Better initiatives.
For four years he enabled Trump’s excesses and abuses. A self-proclaimed steward of the Senate’s constitutional prerogatives, McConnell ignored Trump’s diversion of congressionally appropriated money to a border wall and his appointment of “acting” administration officials to dodge Senate confirmation. He made it possible for Trump to stack the Supreme Court and lower courts. He twice helped Trump win acquittal after impeachment, even though he said of the Jan. 6 insurrection, “There’s no question – none – that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.”
None of this makes McConnell popular even with Republicans. In polls, he is by far the least popular congressional leader.
He doesn’t care. That’s his superpower.
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