House Republicans have spent weeks trying to determine who their next speaker will be. On the campaign trail, 15 candidates are battling it out to be the GOP’s next presidential nominee, as Donald Trump’s continued rise fuels headaches within the party’s establishment and riles up the far right of the party’s base.
Amid all that chaos, on Tuesday afternoon, the Republican Party voted with one voice in the Senate to pass legislation that sits in lockstep with two of the party’s core values: combating illegal immigration and enforcing law and order.
The vote was a brief respite in a storm of Republican discord, intentionally set up as a moment of unity around legislation that the full caucus supports. But it will soon be followed by some tough decisions for the GOP, which are not likely to go over smoothly with the already-agitated Far Right.
Following the vote to strip federal funding from so-called sanctuary cities that limit or prohibit cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration officers to deport illegal immigrants Tuesday, McConnell faces a number of key deadlines that will force the majority leader to compromise with Democrats and the White House in ways that will alienate a handful of conservative members in the Senate and dozens in the House.
The deadline to raise the debt ceiling is fast approaching and acknowledging that the White House will accept nothing short of clean legislation, despite calls from the Right to seek concessions to lower federal spending, McConnell said Tuesday that he is happy to cede the lead role to outgoing Speaker John Boehner, who no longer faces the political consequences that his Senate partner has to contend with.
That’s true only for now, according to Sen. John Thune, the No. 3 in Senate leadership. The House is working to pass a reconciliation bill that would defund key aspects of the Affordable Care Act, leaving precious little time for the lower chamber to pass a debt-ceiling increase and give the Senate the longer period it will need to pass the bill onto President Obama. Thune said Tuesday that if the deadline draws too near without any action in the House, the Senate may need to get started on its own. But for now, leaders are leaving the problem of passing an increase that can clear Obama’s desk in Boehner’s hands.
Meanwhile, McConnell is working to broker a budget deal with the White House, alongside Boehner and Democratic leaders, that will keep the government funded past Dec. 11 when the next government-shutdown clock expires.
That deal will almost certainly necessitate that McConnell and Boehner—who himself will likely be out of office by the time the deal is announced—agree to increase spending for nondefense programs, a nonstarter for Far-Right members in both chambers. Given that such a deal is expected to come after Nov. 3, McConnell is likely to be left as the only Republican “in the room” on the deal to sell it to Republicans in both chambers. With the next speaker still unknown, the possibility (particularly if Rep. Paul Ryan takes a pass) that he or she will be more conservative than Boehner would make the pitch for a final deal in the House even more difficult.
Few details about the as-now hypothetical budget deal have yet emerged, in part, sources close to the talks say, because there aren’t yet many firm details to leak. But what has leaked so far is telling.
McConnell, who forecasted to his members during the summer that they would have to make some concessions on spending in an eventual budget deal, first leaked that talks were beginning earlier this month.
Democrats, who had been calling for Republicans to agree to budget talks for months, were furious that McConnell made public what they thought were early, private talks. In response, they leaked—including to this publication—that McConnell had asked Boehner and Obama to leave House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid out of the talks.
Despite the early spat, the talks have continued and the only substantive leak out of the discussions so far came just a week ago, when CNN reported that McConnell has asked for entitlement changes in exchange for a larger budget deal that will increase federal spending over the sequestration caps set to take effect next year. Unsurprisingly, Democrats immediately—and very publicly—said that request was a no-go.
But the demand has the same effect for McConnell as putting the sanctuary-cities bill on the floor this week: It gives him credibility with an increasingly fractious group of conservative members in both chambers and puts Democrats, not leadership, on the hook for any failure to reach the Far Right’s goals. It also provides a key talking point for members seeking reelection next year, particularly those who may have a primary opponent sniffing around their states and districts.
Will that be sufficient to keep Republicans happy under McConnell’s watch? That’s unclear.
But keeping members sufficiently happy with his leadership style and conservative credentials isn’t McConnell’s primary motivation. As National Journal has reported, while threats to oust him have grown louder since Boehner announced his resignation, McConnell’s job remains relatively safe.
What is at stake for the leader is less about reputation than it is about the institution. During the 2014 campaign, McConnell ran for reelection and campaigned for a Senate majority on the promise of returning to regular order and ending the governing-by-crisis style that had dominated in the past few years. As an institutionalist, increasing the debt ceiling and hashing out a major budget deal to allow Congress to pass regular spending bills next year (if not the following year as well), is paramount.
And that will require agreement from a large swath of congressional Republicans. Anything McConnell can do now to get the party on the same page and boost internal morale could go a long way in the fights to come.
“What we're trying to do here in the Senate is make as much progress for the country as we can,” McConnell told reporters Tuesday. “I think it is also noteworthy that our agenda is entirely different from the agenda that we had last year. We have a different set of priorities [than Democrats], and are pursuing different outcomes, but we are choosing to advance the cause on the issues where there is at least enough bipartisan support to get it out of the Senate and hopefully, to get a presidential signature.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Sen. John Thune as No. 4 in the Senate GOP leadership. He is No. 3.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.