Congress’ most powerful Republican has intentionally taken a back seat in the negotiations over how to end the government shutdown, even as it extends to a record three weeks with no resolution on the horizon.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has gotten Congress out of a lot of political jams in the last decade, including other shutdowns, fiscal cliffs and funding disputes.
But he’s ceded control over the latest Washington stalemate to President Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
It’s partly a reflection of the changing political dynamic now that Democrats control one chamber of Congress. But it may also say something about McConnell’s evolving approach to dealing with an unpredictable president such as Trump, particularly in areas where they may disagree.
“Mitch understands what makes the mules plow around here, and certainly, I would like to see him involved more,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), who acknowledged the Kentucky Republican leader’s ability to negotiate. “I see his point of view. Until Mrs. Pelosi and President Trump can even try to find a sliver of common ground, what could he contribute? I haven’t seen that sliver yet.”
McConnell has pledged that he and other Senate Republicans are aligned with Trump, although cracks have emerged, particularly among Republicans up for reelection in 2020. That leaves little place for McConnell in the public debate until Trump — the most powerful Republican figure in Washington and the states where many Republicans will face reelection in two years — can find some kind of compromise with Democrats.
Democrats say the Senate majority leader has “abdicated” his responsibility and handed the keys to the castle to Trump, particularly by blocking votes on government funding bills approved by the Democrat-led House. Half a dozen or so Republican senators have indicated they might support reopening the government without border wall money.
“He thinks he’s losing his caucus, and he doesn’t want a vote on the floor,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). “His caucus is pretty tired of this shutdown, and he doesn’t want a visible manifestation of that.”
McConnell has a record of negotiating bipartisan deals as well as protecting his Republican members from politically costly votes. Five years ago, McConnell referred to himself as “the guy that gets us out of shutdowns.” He back-channeled during the Obama administration with Vice President Joe Biden, his longtime Senate colleague, to construct deals to raise the debt limit and fund the government.
McConnell never wanted a shutdown. Last month, he led his Republican lawmakers into a vote for a government spending bill without wall money. Senate Republicans approved the bill thinking the White House was on board or confident that Trump would feel pressured to sign it. Instead, Trump bashed the approach as inadequate, and parts of the government shut down.
At least Trump didn’t attack his fellow Republicans on Twitter. With rare restraint, Trump cast his social media ire on Democrats.
Now McConnell, perhaps burned but famously unmoved by public pressure, is staying largely in the background. He says the Senate won’t vote again on a spending bill until Trump and Democratic leaders publicly approve it.
“That is the only way to move the country forward,” he said this week.
Some of his fellow Republicans fear there won’t be a solution until McConnell gets involved, whether publicly or privately.
McConnell “is one of the best you’ve ever known in the inner workings of the Senate,” said Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), the top Senate appropriator. “Sometimes there is nothing going on [publicly], but it’s about what could be going on” that members don’t see.
McConnell has stayed relatively quiet, except to reaffirm that Senate Republicans stand by Trump. This week, he blocked Democrats’ efforts to pass bills to reopen the government and chided Democrats for filibustering unrelated legislation he tried to move during the shutdown. He skipped two of Trump’s lengthy appearances before reporters at the White House, even though his House Republican counterparts stood behind the president. Aides say he didn’t know about the first news conference.
Since then, he hasn’t embraced any offramps or voiced an opinion about Trump’s threat to declare a national emergency to divert military funds for a wall.
Early Thursday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) floated an immigration proposal that he suggested would end the standoff. “The last best hope to solve this problem is in the Senate,” he said as he crafted a plan to fund the government, with money for the border, in exchange for providing protections for certain immigrants known as “Dreamers.”
But after huddling with McConnell on the plan, Graham declared it dead and called for Trump to declare the border a national emergency.
The White House seems to appreciate McConnell’s approach.
“Leader McConnell is standing strong. He’s in the room … he’s been in the room every step of the way,” Vice President Mike Pence told reporters in the Capitol this week. “Republicans are standing rock solid with the president, and Leader McConnell is right there with them.”
In fact, McConnell’s diminished role may help Republicans: It reinforces the GOP message that the shutdown is a battle between Trump and Democrats in Congress, not Republicans. Recent polling suggests that Americans first blame Trump for the shutdown, then Democrats and, finally, Republicans.
About half of voters, or 47%, blame Trump for the shutdown, according to a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll. A third of respondents blame Democrats in Congress, and 5% say it rests with congressional Republicans.