Senate Majority Leader Braces for a Storm of Conservative Protests Over Debt Ceiling, Budget

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said: "What we’re try­ing to do here in the Sen­ate is make as much pro­gress for the coun­try as we can." Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said: "What we’re try­ing to do here in the Sen­ate is make as much pro­gress for the coun­try as we can." Carolyn Kaster/AP

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. 4 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.”

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