What you’re hearing all around Capitol Hill over the past few days is the murmur of staffers saying nervously what their bosses can’t: Mitch McConnell has the yips. Say what you will about McConnell’s ideological grounding, or lack thereof – there was a time when the total leadership failure of the past week would never have been possible for the Senate Majority Leader. There is a palpable concern that the leader has lost a step, of the “Ten years ago, could I have gotten him?” variety. And this concern is rising at a moment when the Planned Parenthood defunding push is tick tick ticking underneath the chairs of every member of the Republican caucus in both chambers – exactly the sort of scenario that demands level-headed leadership.
Let’s rewind to contrast the approaches used by McConnell and by the leader of the conservative faction, Mike Lee. This session has been a revelation for Lee’s approach, as the lone Tea Party Senator actually interested in being a Senator, and he followed up rolling McConnell over the USA Freedom Act with a doozy of an inside game maneuver. It was Lee who noticed that McConnell bungled his procedural step in filling the tree on the Highway Bill, and had the ingenuity to decide to make McConnell’s fake show vote on Obamacare repeal – a shiny object so bright it would turn you blind if you looked directly at it – into a real honest to goodness Obamacare repeal vote. Lee has been pressing for this 51-threshold vote on Obamacare for months, with the argument that Republicans campaigned on it and voters expect it, and Republican Senators were promised it when they voted for the budget resolution. This was awfully inconvenient.
As you might expect, Lee took an absolute beating from McConnell and his colleagues in the back room, endured it, and said he’d back down in exchange for a promise to use reconciliation to repeal Obamacare – a cleaner approach to the same end. McConnell refused, and instead tried to use a staffer email against Lee in a bizarre and childish tantrum, including passing out unredacted copies of the email from a young single female staffer. But McConnell’s gambit failed, and after Lee made the offer once again, McConnell accepted it. Happy learned how to putt.
The really disturbing part of this whole story is asking the question: Why? What was the point of all of this? This was a fight of McConnell’s choosing, not of the conservative faction of the Senate. By his own decision to resurrect ExIm and fill the tree on his misbegotten Highway Bill, he plunged the conference into a week of hell. And what did he get for it? He alienated the fiscal conservative base on ExIm, invited the scorching Cruz speech, bungled the procedural process creating Lee’s opportunity, tried to use a mild email from a female staffer to claim this was another show fight, and then in the last instant caved utterly, acquiescing to Lee’s demand… all for what? To jam the House with a Highway Bill that the body has treated like a bevy of Calvins urinating on the back windows of so many pickup trucks.
Here again, the incompetence is disturbing – but so is the spin. For weeks McConnell has insisted that the House would take up his Highway Bill – that he was doing the hard work of legislative leadership to get something bipartisan done. But after the bungling of the past week, he’s realized he needs a new narrative. You’ll find that here. “McConnell doesn’t want to see the Export-Import Bank reauthorized any more than Cruz does. But he has a firewall in the House, where Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has said that they will not take up the bill. Going along with the wishes of Ex-Im proponents in the Senate allowed McConnell to get his handcrafted highway bill through the Senate without the fear of actually reopening the bank, since both chambers now plan to pass a three-month highway bill extension.”
Oh really? So this was all part of the plan? The ExIm sell out, Cruz’s speech, the floor chaos, the germaneness fiasco, releasing a female staffers name and contact info to the world, caving to Lee, and getting beaten back by the House was all part of Mitch McConnell’s master plan? Even worse than taking your lumps and admitting you didn’t see something coming is claiming that you meant to do that all along.
What’s worse still is that McConnell doesn’t appear to have learned any lessons from this fight about the danger of show votes on issues people actually care about – such as the Planned Parenthood issue. If Republican leadership believes that a show vote is going to preclude a continuing resolution fight on Planned Parenthood funding, they are out of their minds. The politics of the Planned Parenthood videos – footage that has been shown unblurred all day on Fox News, footage of dismembered hands and limbs and bits of babies being discussed like a widget – are going to totally overwhelm any legislative strategy. The demand from pro-life groups is going to be simple and clear: will you vote for a CR that continues to fund Planned Parenthood, or not? To get a CR through that affirmatively funds Planned Parenthood for the next fiscal year, McConnell will have to get to 60 – he will have to find sixteen Republican Senators willing to fund Planned Parenthood. Maybe it would’ve been smarter to have that fight over, say, a Highway Bill versus a government shutdown? But no.
At a time like this, Republicans could use someone in leadership that knows how to turn the base’s rage into something productive. Mitch McConnell just proved he’s not that person, and he never will be. And that is going to make this coming CR fight all the more difficult.