Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has a lot to contend with these days. Donald Trump’s push to reshape the GOP around an ideology best defined as vulgarian fascism has Senate Republicans terrified of losing their majority come November. The only other semi-serious contender in the GOP presidential hunt, Senator Ted Cruz, rose to fame by bashing McConnell as a spineless, soulless, chinless liar—and then he dropped out on Tuesday night, meaning he’ll soon be returning full-time to tormenting his leader. And the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February fated McConnell to spend the rest of this year explaining to the country why President Obama does not in fact have the right to appoint his successor to the High Court. Small wonder McConnell has the Senate working the fewest days of any session in 60 years; the beleaguered leader clearly could use a little extra “me” time.
In the midst of all the chaos and uncertainty, however, McConnell has one political ace up his sleeve: the House Freedom Caucus.
Don’t misunderstand. Freedom Caucus crusaders loathe McConnell, maybe even more than they loathe President Obama. (Obama may be an infidel, but McConnell is a heretic, which dooms him to a much nastier circle of hell.) Cynical, opportunistic, and establishment to his core, McConnell represents, in conservative purists’ minds, all that is wrong with the GOP. It is the rare Freedom Caucuser who misses an opportunity—in one-on-one chats and public forums alike—to take a shot at the Senate leader. In late March, some angry caucus members suggested that, if McConnell failed to properly shepherd yet another one of their pet bills, he would need to go the way of deposed Speaker John Boehner. (How exactly members of the lower chamber plan to overthrow the head of the upper chamber is not entirely clear.) For a sense of the level of passions at play here, cue up last season’s Game of Thrones finale, in which Jon Snow was butchered by his own troops. That should clear things up.
Which makes it more than a little ironic that, whatever the Freedom Caucus’s feelings for McConnell, its members have been making his job considerably easier this session with their dogged obstructionism. By reducing the House to a perpetual hot mess, the conservative rebels have time and again prevented ticklish legislation from passing, frequently allowing McConnell to duck uncomfortable debates in his own chamber.
Just look at what’s been going on with the Puerto Rico debt crisis the past couple of weeks. (Wait! Don’t doze off. Having a U.S. territory of 3.5 million people spiral into chaos would be a very bad thing.) On May 1, the island missed a $422 million debt payment, and unless U.S. lawmakers stop dorking around, the situation promises to get much grimmer. Speaker Paul Ryan has been sweating blood trying to get a majority of his members to embrace a restructuring plan for the commonwealth’s $72 billion debt burden. Thus far, conservatives are having none of it, fearful that Ryan is snookering them into supporting a big, fat taxpayer bailout of San Juan. (Quick fact check: The proposal Ryan is pushing commits no taxpayer money to Puerto Rico and is aimed at preventing a bailout down the road.)
Clearly, now is the time for strong, decisive leadership from the more level-headed Senate. So what plan of action did McConnell announce early last week, as the debt-payment deadline loomed? “We're going to let the House go first on Puerto Rico.”
Now there is some bold leadership.
Not that this would surprise anyone keeping an eye on Congress’s slow-moving budget-resolution train wreck. This was the year when a resolution should have been easy-peasy, thanks to John Boehner’s hammering out the topline spending levels in the two-year agreement he handed Ryan as a parting gift last October. But Freedom Caucus members decided they simply couldn’t live with those numbers, and so the House’s budget has been stalled for weeks now. McConnell, in turn, didn’t even try for a resolution. Instead, he turned things over to Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi, who, minus an agreement, has the authority to set topline spending levels himself—which he promptly did, based on Boehner’s plan. Et voila! Debate and awkward votes averted.
Making McConnell’s life even easier: the Freedom Caucus’s renewed insistence on the Hastert Rule (also known as “the majority of the majority” rule among those who’d just as soon not be reminded of recently convicted ex-Speaker Dennis Hastert). Under Boehner, the practice of not bringing legislation to the floor without the support of a majority of Republican members fell by the wayside, as Freedom Caucusers grew increasingly troublesome. When Ryan took over, he vowed to respect the rule once more. And so herding the cats grew even more complicated.
Notably, the one area where the Freedom Caucus offers McConnell no cover is in the bitter PR battle over the Supreme Court vacancy. The House plays zero role in the confirmation of justices, which means public ire over the stonewalling of Judge Merrick Garland’s nomination must fall solidly on McConnell. Thrilled by the opening, Democrats are working hard to make the majority leader and his members feel the heat.
For the most part, however, McConnell has found that the Freedom Caucus has its uses—at least during an election year, when he doesn’t want his conference taking risky votes. This way, whenever Democrats or the general public starts grumbling about Congress’s infuriating inability to get stuff done, the Senate leader can shrug and wave archly in the direction of the troublemakers in the House. If, in return, they want to run around talking smack about him, McConnell can live with that.