Under Pressure, Mitch McConnell Bends the Knee to Conservatives on Debt Ceiling

FILE - In this July 11, 2017 file photo, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. lis
AP/J. Scott Applewhite

Facing enormous pressure from conservatives, and a brewing revolt against many of his vulnerable members, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell bent down on wounded knee to pitch the debt ceiling deal President Donald Trump cut with the Democrats as a GOP victory.

“Let’s put it this way,” McConnell told the New York Times in an interview on Monday regarding the debt ceiling deal Trump cut with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. “The deal is not quite as good as my counterpart thought it was.”

McConnell’s framing is that the debt deal decouples the looming December spending bill battle from the debt ceiling fight—which he says will take place next year—eliminating leverage points for Democrats and increasing GOP leverage in the pair of forthcoming battles.

The New York Times’ Carl Hulse explained McConnell’s reasoning as such:

The reason? Mr. McConnell said that he insisted the newly passed legislation preserve Treasury’s ability to apply ‘extraordinary measures’ and shift money within government accounts to pay off debt and extend federal borrowing power.

That will delay the need for another increase in the debt limit well beyond the December deadline that Democrats have been trumpeting as their big moment of leverage. And Mr. McConnell said he did so over the objections of Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader and aforementioned counterpart.

In fact, Mr. McConnell said, the debt limit will not have to be increased until well into 2018, taking that volatile subject off the table for the December spending talks, and eliminating the Democrats’ most dangerous bargaining chip in the first round of negotiations.

Separating the debt ceiling from the deadline to fund the government also addresses one of the main complaints of conservatives who were unhappy that last week’s legislation linked hurricane relief and the increase in the debt limit, forcing many to either cast a debt limit vote they were unhappy about or to oppose hurricane relief.

“Since I was in charge of drafting the debt ceiling provision that we inserted into the flood bill we likely — almost certainly — are not going to have another debt ceiling discussion until well into 2018,” McConnell told the Times.

Hulse wrote that McConnell was “clearly irked by the perception that he got rolled by Democrats when President Trump accepted their proposal for a three-month extension of the debt limit and government funding,” so the notoriously precise Senate leader sought out the Times for this interview to declare that the Democrats “spiked the ball in the end zone a little too early.”

“One of the advantages of being the majority leader is you control the paper,” McConnell said, meaning the legislation. “I wrote it in such a way that it does not prevent what is frequently done, which is the use of extraordinary measures. The minority leader and his team were trying to get us not to write it that way, but I did write it that way and that is the way it passed.”

McConnell added that the decoupling of the debt ceiling and spending bill fights will prove useful for conservatives and Republicans down the road.

“I think I can safely say the debt ceiling and the spending issue in December will be decoupled because the debt ceiling will not come up until sometime in 2018,” McConnell said.

McConnell also refused to respond to criticism from Breitbart News executive chairman Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s former White House chief strategist.

“I don’t have any reaction to it,” McConnell told the Times when asked about Bannon’s criticism of him during his 60 Minutes interview on Sunday night with Charlie Rose.

The Times’ Hulse wrote that McConnell’s refusal to respond to Bannon’s criticism is noteworthy given that McConnell is “known for steely discipline when he decides not to answer a question.” But that same argument cuts both ways: Since McConnell went out of his way to explain himself on the debt ceiling and spending bill battles, he clearly felt a need to do so in the public eye while he has been under pressure from conservatives nationally as a revolt looms against his membership.

Here is a transcript of what Bannon said about McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan—the faces of the GOP establishment—during his interview with 60 Minutes’ Charlie Rose:

STEVE BANNON: The Republican establishment is trying to nullify the 2016 election. That’s a brutal fact we have to face.

CHARLIE ROSE: The Republican establishment?

STEVE BANNON: The Republican establishment is trying–

CHARLIE ROSE: Wants to nullify the 2016 election?

STEVE BANNON: Trying to nullify the 2016 election. Absolutely.


STEVE BANNON: I think Mitch McConnell, and to a degree, Paul Ryan. They do not want Donald Trump’s populist, economic nationalist agenda to be implemented. It’s very obvious. It’s obvious as– it’s obvious as the– it’s obvious as night follows day is what they’re trying to do–

CHARLIE ROSE: Give me a story that illustrates that.

STEVE BANNON: Oh, Mitch McConnell when we first met him, I mean, he was– he was– he– he said, I think in one of the first meetings– in Trump Tower with the president– as we’re wrapping up, he basically says, “I don’t wanna hear any more of this ‘Drain the Swamp’ talk.” He says, “I can’t– I can’t hire any smart people,” because everybody’s all over him for reporting requirements and– and the pay, et cetera, and the scrutiny. You know, “You gotta back off that.” The “Drain the Swamp” thing was– is Mitch McConnell was Day One did not wanna– did not wanna go there. Wanted us to back off.

CHARLIE ROSE: You are attacking on many fronts people who you need to help you to get things done.

STEVE BANNON: They’re not gonna help you unless they’re put on notice. They’re gonna be held accountable if they do not support the president of the United States. Right now there’s no accountability. They have totally– they do not support the president’s program. It’s an open secret on Capitol Hill. Everybody in this city knows it.

CHARLIE ROSE: And so therefore, now that you’re out of the White House, you’re going to war with them?

STEVE BANNON: Absolutely.

A majority leader in the U.S. Senate draws his power from his party’s members, especially those loyal to him. In the case of McConnell, a senator who has served in Washington for decades, he has many allies and loyalists. But, his continued failures on major big picture pieces of legislation as the majority leader has put his allies at risk nationally.

The first one up for a referendum on a ballot test is Alabama’s Luther Strange, who was appointed into his U.S. Senate seat under questionable circumstances. Strange, then the Attorney General of Alabama, was investigating then-Gov. Robert Bentley for a corruption and sex scandal that eventually cost the governor his job. Bentley appointed Strange into the seat vacated by now U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions after Strange asked the Alabama legislature to hold off on impeachment proceedings, and shortly thereafter Bentley resigned as a result of the scandal that Strange was supposedly investigating as Alabama’s Attorney General.

Strange was once thought to be a shoo-in for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate seat in Alabama into which he was appointed after now-Gov. Kay Ivey called a special election, but he struggled significantly in the first round of voting, finishing in deep second place behind conservative former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice Judge Roy Moore. President Trump endorsed Strange the first go-around, in large part because the president wanted to stop Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL)—who said many troubling things about Trump when he was backing Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) for the presidency during the 2016 GOP presidential primaries—but has stayed out of the second round of voting for now. Strange is trailing Moore significantly in the polls with just two weeks to go, as Moore appears more and more likely to pull off an upset victory over Strange in Alabama and storm his way into Washington.

While a win for Moore would not be a loss for President Trump as much as Strange’s desperate campaign has framed it that way, it would be a huge loss for McConnell. Moore has openly called for McConnell to lose the majority leader position, and has been hammering away against the Senate filibuster that requires 60 votes to pass legislation rather than a simple majority of 51 votes—a filibuster rule that McConnell goes out of his way to protect.

A win for Moore would also embolden other challengers to McConnell allies in the U.S. Senate nationally next year, including Danny Tarkanian’s run against Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) and Dr. Kelli Ward’s run against Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ). Sources in Arizona suggest, too, that there may be a bigger and more credible challenger than Ward who may emerge against Flake in the coming weeks and months, something that would endanger Flake even more. Polling out of both Arizona and Nevada suggests Flake and Heller are in serious electoral trouble.

Meanwhile, in Mississippi and Tennessee, Sens. Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Bob Corker (R-TN) are likely to draw very serious primary challenges themselves should they decide to run for re-election. Corker has said he is considering retiring as both Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and state Sen. Mark Green consider challenges against him. If neither Blackburn nor Green—the two most credible potential challengers—runs against Corker, it is likely he still faces a challenge from former state Rep. Joe Carr, who nearly toppled Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) in a contentious 2014 primary.

In Mississippi, state Sen. Chris McDaniel is likely to run against Wicker. McDaniel actually beat Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) in 2014’s primary, then had the election stolen from him due to establishment dirty tricks and the use of walking around money to pay Democrats in the black community in Mississippi to vote for Cochran in the runoff. McDaniel outperformed Cochran among Republican voters in both cases, and Cochran’s team openly admitted they would not have won if it were not for those entirely dirty and widely-viewed-as-unacceptable tactics to get Democrats to vote for him in the primary.

That’s all not to mention the looming battles in open primaries in states where the incumbent U.S. Senator is a Democrat. Those states include 10 states in which Trump beat 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton: Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, West Virginia, Missouri, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, and North Dakota.

They also include other states with the potential to be competitive, like Minnesota, where Trump came within 50,000 votes of defeating Clinton, and Virginia, where Clinton’s running mate Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) faces the voters again for the first time since he and Clinton were rejected nationally. Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, is also potentially going to face a tough re-election battle– especially if Gov. Paul LePage throws his hat into the race.

All of this presents a unique opportunity for conservatives who would like to see McConnell replaced, and a tough road ahead for McConnell himself and for his allies. It also explains why McConnell—who again is notorious for only saying things he would like to say, and nothing more, in the press—made sure to seek out an interview with the New York Times to discuss his framing of this debt ceiling and spending bill deal as a win for conservatives and Republicans rather than a Democrat victory.


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