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by Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs
Poor Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Barack Obama used to be his punching bag, but that was when Kentucky’s senior senator was in the minority. Now, he’s majority leader, and his real nemesis is John Boehner (R-Ohio), a Republican compatriot and speaker of the House.
Why do I say that? First consider McConnell’s impolitic imprecation to a National Journal reporter in 2010, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Well, McConnell lost on that score. But last year voters finally gave him a win.
Just a month before the election, in a speech at Northwestern University, the president had said, “I am not on the ballot this fall … . But make no mistake: these policies are on the ballot. Every single one of them.” Voters rendered their judgment on his policies and handed Senate control over to Republicans.
Enter new Majority Leader McConnell. He secured his title, but with Senate rules requiring 60 votes to move any legislation, he has found himself with too few reliable boots on the Senate ground — 54 to be exact — to execute a Republican agenda. Just a year ago, McConnell was the master of “no,” repeatedly orchestrating filibusters that shackled the Senate’s hands. Now, he can only hope that Democrats will loosen the procedural bonds occasionally.
But so long as Boehner and his GOP House minions send over legislation that Democrats find completely unpalatable, McConnell will be in a bind, and the Senate will remain fettered. The recent Department of Homeland Security (DHS) appropriations bill is a perfect example.
At the end of last year’s lame duck session, Congress — with Obama’s characteristically dispassionate acquiescence — passed a “CRomnibus” bill that wrapped fiscal year 2015 funding for all federal activities, except the DHS, into an omnibus legislative vehicle. But Republicans, who found the president’s executive orders on immigration abhorrent, if not unconstitutional, refused to fund DHS for the balance of the fiscal year, demanding instead that DHS be placed on a Continuing Resolution that would expire at the end February.
Absent further congressional action and a presidential signature, DHS would have to shutter its doors except for activities directly related to national security. House drafters began work on DHS appropriations as soon as the 114th Congress convened. And by the beginning of February, on a party-line vote, the chamber passed a bill that would fund the department for the balance of the 2015 fiscal year. But House Republicans added riders that would strip away all of the president’s executive immigration orders.
Even before the legislative ink was dry, Senate Democrats warned they would filibuster anything except a “clean” funding bill. Boehner, they said was handing McConnell a poison pill. And so it was that well before Valentine’s Day, McConnell called for votes on the DHS bill three separate times, and each time Democrats massacred the effort. Poor Mitch McConnell. Boehner’s minions had sent him belladonna instead of roses.
You might wonder why the House speaker, who is no political novice, would have set McConnell up that way. The truth is that without Democratic votes, Boehner has a hard time getting any legislation through his chamber that does not pander to the far right wing of the party of the right.
How bad is Boehner’s problem? Well, consider that without Democrats, he might not have been elected speaker at all. No, they didn’t vote for him. But a score of them were in New York attending the funeral of former Gov. Mario Cuomo on the day the House voted. Boehner, who managed to secure only 216 Republican votes, would have needed two more if all members of the House had been present.
Add to that the new Freedom Caucus that Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and a cadre of ultraconservatives have established to hold Boehner’s feet closer to the conservative fire than the conservative Republican Study Committee seemed willing to do. The new caucus anticipates having 30 members, without whose support the speaker would be unable to conduct House business — unless, of course, he decides to rely on Democratic support and risk his speakership by doing so. Don’t hold your breath waiting for him to make such a bold move.
Instead, look for two years of a Boehner-McConnell mating ritual, one that could well end the way it does for praying mantises. In case you’ve forgotten, once mating is complete, the female eats the male. At this point, it’s hard to say who winds up being eaten.
In such a high-stakes game, it’s also hard to see where science fits. For McConnell and Boehner, who seem destined to be consumed by intra-party jousting for the next two years, it may simply be a misfit.
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