A handful of Senate Republicans are expressing frustration with their party’s handling of the ongoing government shutdown. But Mitch McConnell is a long way from facing any sort of rebellion.
The Senate majority leader is standing firm in his resolve to not move a muscle on any government funding bill that would not have the president’s approval. That’s earned him scorn among Democrats given that he endorsed a funding bill that didn’t include the president’s much-sought additional border wall funding of more than $5 billion in December.
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But aside from some rank-and-file Republicans like Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Cory Gardner of Colorado who say Congress should again pass spending bills that don’t provide additional wall funding, McConnell’s allies say he’s facing little pressure to change his stance as the longest shutdown in history continues.
“They’re going to do what they need to do and advocate for what they believe their constituents want,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who served as McConnell’s deputy for six years. “But I don’t think that should be confused with what Sen. McConnell’s calculus is, which is: not to go through this effort of passing something the president won’t sign and then going through a potential veto override and all the conflict that would cause.”
He added: “All of us would like to reopen the government but not in so doing capitulate our responsibility for border security.”
With Trump now opposed to those bills for being light on border security funding, most Senate Republicans say they are too. And as leader of the Senate GOP, McConnell sees it as his job to stand firm behind that response and absorb all the Democratic attacks coming his way as they portray him as the only impediment to getting out of the shutdown.
There is some action behind the scenes as McConnell bides his time and waits for the president to cut a deal with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, negotiations that have been descending rapidly in recent weeks. Rank-and-file GOP senators met among themselves last week and then with centrist Democrats on Monday hoping to break the deadlock.
Yet even the senators who have proposed reopening the government without additional border wall funding don’t fault McConnell. Gardner is up for reelection in 2020 in blue Colorado and has been talking to senators in both parties about ending the shutdown, but he said that McConnell is “trying to find a way forward, just like the rest of us are.”
“Why isn’t there a rebellion on the Democrats’ side?” Gardner said, highlighting the party’s lockstep opposition to giving Trump more than $1.3 billion for fencing.
“That’s a good question,” added Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) as he walked by Gardner in the Senate halls.
But McConnell sets the Senate agenda and Democrats say he is shirking his duty as Senate leader by not bucking Trump. They insist that there are 67 votes, and at least 20 Republicans, who would be willing to override the president’s veto of a spending bill that doesn’t include the additional wall funding that Trump seeks.
Schumer said on Monday that McConnell is “out to lunch” in criticizing Pelosi, whose House majority is passing funding bills that the president won’t sign.
“It seems clear to nearly everybody but Leader McConnell that Congress needs to move forward without the president,” Schumer said on Monday.
The GOP leader had just taken to the floor to attack Pelosi for deeming the wall “immoral,” which he declared is “not a serious statement.” It was an attack line that should please the president, who is touting GOP unity at every chance he gets. And it was a floor speech that showed McConnell is not even thinking about giving Democrats what they want as he said that the “speaker of the House has decided that opposing President Trump comes before the security of our borders.”
Still, McConnell hates shutdowns and knows they are a political loser. He repeatedly said his majority was unlikely to oversee a lengthy shutdown, and he called a far shorter impasse in 2018 the “Schumer shutdown.” Democrats have returned the favor, trying to saddle McConnell with just as much blame as Trump.
McConnell “doesn’t want a shutdown. He’s facilitating the president’s shutdown. I hope there’s some give. I think we have the votes not only to pass these bills, but probably override these vetoes,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). “The president looks like he’s planning to stay this way forever, and I don’t think McConnell and the Senate can let that happen.”
At the same time, McConnell has much more to think about politically than just opening up the government and continuing on with business as usual. Funding the government without a border security increase would amount to all-out war on Trump by undercutting one of his chief political goals, risking ire from the GOP base for McConnell, Gardner and other Senate Republicans up for reelection in 2020.
And it would turn into a brutal intraparty fight between the Senate GOP and a president that most Republicans say the Senate can’t win. They do not believe there are the votes to override the president, even though the Senate passed a spending bill without new border wall money in December.
“You’ve got a president that has got to agree to something, or else you have to have two-thirds vote in the House and the Senate. And we’re not going to get that,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.). “I know it is not popular what Mitch is doing. Everybody wants to jump in and do something. But he’s correct.”
The bipartisan group of senators on Monday discussed trying to reopen the government and then negotiate on immigration, according to Democrats, a similar proposal to last week’s discussions among Republicans. Trump shot down the proposal early Monday,
And even though McConnell is disengaged from the talks to try and strike a bipartisan compromise intended to win Trump over, Republicans involved in the talks don’t fault him for it. And most of them make clear that even as they keep talking, they certainly aren’t breaking away from the president — or from McConnell.
“Democrats are forgetting people elected the president. He’s made a reasonable request, and we have a Republican Senate and a Republican president,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who said he “bent over backwards” to accommodate former President Barack Obama. “Instead of focusing on what they don’t want to give the president, they should focus on what they want to add to the president’s request.”