Don't count on McConnell to make a deal on immigration

Don’t count on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to play dealmaker in the fight over Department of Homeland Security funding.

The Kentucky Republican is under intense pressure from conservatives to hold the line against President Obama’s immigration actions, and he shows no signs of backing down.

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McConnell on Tuesday used a judge’s injunction against Obama’s immigration order to increase the pressure on Democrats, saying the onus is on them to stop filibustering legislation that would fund the DHS and stop an illegal power grab by the White House.

“Senate Democrats — especially those who’ve voiced opposition to the President’s executive overreach — should end their partisan filibuster of Department of Homeland Security funding,” McConnell said in a statement.

McConnell could have seized on the injunction to push conservatives toward funding the DHS while the court fight plays out. The fact that he didn’t, Senate Democrats say, is a sign that McConnell won’t be coming to the negotiating table.

“He certainly has not looked that way thus far,” said a senior Democratic aide. “He could have said, ‘This issue is being discussed in the courts; that’s the appropriate venue. Let’s keep the fight there and fund DHS in the meantime.’

“He cares more about scoring points with the hard right of his caucus than doing the right thing,” the aide said.

McConnell stepped in at the last minute to defuse three major crises in that past four years: the standoff over raising the debt limit in 2011; the “fiscal cliff” of tax hikes and spending cuts in 2012; and the government shutdown in 2013.

Lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol may be looking for him to reprise his role as fixer, especially given his declaration after Republicans captured the Senate: “There will be no government shutdowns.”

The difference now, GOP sources say, is that McConnell does not have a willing negotiating partner in the White House or in Senate Democrats.

“What’s the administration’s incentive to work with Republicans? They know Republicans’ backs are against the wall. All they have to do is sit tight. If the department shuts down, Republicans get all the blame. It’s a win-win for the Democrats and Obama,” said a Republican source familiar with the Senate leadership’s thinking.

A CNN/ORC poll released Tuesday showed Republicans would bear the brunt of the blame if the DHS shuts down on Feb. 28. Fifty-three percent of Americans would point the finger at Republicans, while only 30 percent would hold Obama primarily responsible, the poll found.

Don Stewart, McConnell’s spokesman, said his boss has few options as long as Democrats refuse to allow a House-passed funding bill to come up for debate. He said it is up to Obama, not McConnell, to break the impasse. 

“If Democrats won’t let us get on any bill, there’s nothing anyone can do. It’s in the president’s interest to fund the Department of Homeland Security. Maybe the president will engage his party and have them have this debate,” he said.

Obama has pressed Senate Democrats to block anything short of a “clean” funding measure for the DHS that leaves his immigration actions intact.

“In past efforts he had a willing partner where Democrats also wanted to fund the government. Now they’re willing to filibuster even if it causes a shutdown,” Stewart said.

Former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who was one of McConnell’s confidants when he served in the Senate, said the GOP leader could try to move a “clean” funding bill next week when Congress returns from its Presidents Day recess.

Gregg, a columnist for The Hill, said former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) ended the 1996 government shutdown by taking the lead on a measure to restore funding to federal agencies and then pressuring the House to approve it.

“After about two weeks, Bob Dole walked into caucus and said, ‘It’s time for the adults to lead around here and we’re going to open this government back up.’ That’s what it takes,” Gregg said.

While a move by McConnell could save the GOP from a shutdown, it would likely come at a high political cost. Conservative critics would likely accuse him of capitulation, complicating his ability to marshal party unity on other issues, including the budget debate that will begin next month.

“Sen. McConnell needs to keep the promise that was made with the passage of the ‘cromnibus’ bill last year and put real pressure on Democrats to fund DHS without forcing taxpayers to pay for unlawful amnesty. This was the leadership’s plan. If they capitulate, they will have nobody to blame but themselves,” said Ken Cuccinelli, president of the Senate Conservatives Fund.

Heritage Action for America, another conservative advocacy group, released a memo last week urging Republican leaders: “Don’t blink on fight to stop Obama’s executive amnesty.” 

One Republican strategist said even if McConnell tries to move a clean funding bill, it might not pass the House.

“It may require Republicans to take a political pounding for a solution to present itself,” said the strategist who requested anonymity to discuss McConnell’s options.

Gregg said McConnell could easily pass a clean funding bill through the Senate but predicted that getting House conservatives to accept it would require help from the Speaker’s office.

“It is up to Boehner. McConnell can pass a clean bill. The question is whether he wants to put Boehner in the position of having to deal with his caucus on a clean bill,” Gregg said.