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McConnell plays hardball

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellSchumer calls for Senate probe into Russian interference Senate passes stopgap funding bill, averting shutdown Senate advances funding measure, avoiding shutdown MORE (R-Ky.) has dug in on Loretta Lynch’s nomination to be attorney general, highlighting his willingness to play hardball with the Democratic minority. 

His maneuvers on Lynch shed light on how he will lead the upper chamber in this Congress, but the strategy has some risks — especially with a fragile majority.

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McConnell has for weeks refused to allow senators to leapfrog over a stalled anti-human trafficking bill to move to Lynch’s nomination. In fact, the GOP leader has linked the two issues, telling Democrats they will only get a vote on Lynch if they compromise with Republicans on the trafficking bill, which has been held up by a fight over abortion.

Yet, McConnell has been more than willing to move from the human trafficking bill when it suits his interests — once to pass a GOP budget and this week to move a bipartisan Medicare bill.

The hardball tactics, coming in McConnell’s first 100 days as majority leader, pose some risks for a GOP majority determined to show it can govern. Democrats can win back the Senate in 2016 by winning four or five seats, depending on the outcome of the presidential race. 

McConnell is facing rising pressure to allow a vote on Lynch, who Democrats this week noted has waited 160 days since her nomination for a confirmation vote.

Supporters launched a hunger strike this week, and The Washington Post editorial board on Thursday slammed the GOP leader for the “shabby treatment” of Lynch, who would be the first black woman to serve as attorney general. The Post wrote there is “no principled reason to link Ms. Lynch’s nomination to the passage of the trafficking bill,” and that she should get “immediate floor consideration.”

However, McConnell’s strategy also has benefits for the GOP leader and his conference, which has unified around him.

Republicans are irked that Democrats blocked the trafficking bill over language that would prevent money for a victims fund set up by the bill to be used for abortions — even after some Democrats voted for the bill in committee. Democrats later said they did not realize the abortion language had been included in the legislation.

Federal spending measures typically include language prohibiting funds from being used to pay for abortions, but Democrats say the new bill goes further because the victims fund would be set up through fines on people found to have engaged in human trafficking.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamSecond Dem calls for probe into Russian election involvement GOP senator: Russian hacking 'hardly news' Reid: Comey should be investigated in wake of Russia report MORE (R-S.C.) said he hopes the legislative stalemate gets resolved, but “I’m going to support my leader.”

Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) said Republicans were “perplexed” over the Democratic moves, adding that it “raises questions about what the motives are.”

“The majority leader is perfectly within his rights to basically say that we're perfectly happy to take ... this nomination up as soon as we finish this bill,” Coats said.

Groups on the right have urged Republicans to oppose Lynch’s nomination, tying her to the fight over President Obama’s executive actions on immigration. Given that opposition, McConnell may not be in a rush to move on Lynch.

At the same time, McConnell’s office has worked hard to stress that the leader is not opposed to a vote on Lynch. McConnell aides have repeatedly stressed that he is more than willing to move forward with her nomination — as long as Democrats agree to allow the human trafficking bill to move.

On Thursday night, new signs emerged of a possible breakthrough on the trafficking bill, which could clear the way to votes on that legislation and Lynch as early as next week. But it’s clear there will need to be a deal on the trafficking bill to get to Lynch.

Democrats say the weeks-long stalemate is another sign that McConnell and Senate Republicans don’t know how to govern.  

Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.) the House Democratic whip, said Republicans have “wasted” the first 100 days of the new Congress on “political messaging bills.”

Adam Jentleson, Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidReid: Comey should be investigated in wake of Russia report Spokesman: NY Times ignored Reid's comments in pre-election story on Russia Senate passes dozens of bills on way out of town MORE’s communications director, suggested McConnell's leadership style is a stark contrast from when the Nevada Democrat was running the chamber.

“In 100 days the Republican Congress has accomplished nothing for the middle class,” he said. “By comparison, when Senator Reid became leader under President Bush, the Senate had already voted to raise the minimum wage, enhance stem cell research, implement recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, repeal big oil subsidies and reinvest in renewable energy, slash student loan interest rates and let Medicare negotiate lower prices for seniors."

Over the last few weeks, though, McConnell can point to tangible results that Republicans are getting things done.

Health groups praised this week’s passage of a bipartisan deal on Medicare that will prevent cuts in physician payments. Separately, senators announced bipartisan deals on trade, and a process to review and vote on a potential nuclear deal with Iran.

Republicans on Thursday said they feel no pressure to move on Lynch.  

Asked Thursday if he had heard any concerns from constituents about the delay in Lynch’s nomination when he was back in his home state, Graham said:  “The only thing I heard was people wanting me to vote against her.”

McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said the GOP leader will not change the Senate’s schedule, and that the Lynch vote will follow a vote on the human trafficking bill.

“The Lynch nomination was [scheduled] to be after the trafficking bill before Dems decided to filibuster,” he said. “The schedule is the same but we are optimistic that Democrats will soon drop their filibuster and allow the bipartisan bill to go forward. … Once that bill is done, the Lynch nomination is next.”