September headache ahead for GOP leader McConnell

September headache ahead for GOP leader McConnell

September is shaping up to be a headache for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellOvernight Energy: Trump energy nominees face Congress | OPEC to extend production cuts Senate confirms Trump's first lower-court nominee Top GOP senators tell Trump to ditch Paris climate deal MORE.

The Kentucky Republican is facing an uphill battle to reject President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran and is pushing back on intensifying speculation that the government could shut down at the end of the month.

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McConnell plans to take up the Iran disapproval resolution as soon as lawmakers return to Washington after Labor Day, but he is short the 60 votes he needs to overcome a Democratic filibuster.

So far only two Democrats, Sens. Charles SchumerCharles SchumerHow Trump can score a big league bipartisan win on infrastructure Overnight Finance: Dems introduce minimum wage bill | Sanders clashes with Trump budget chief | Border tax proposal at death's door GOP senators distance themselves from House ObamaCare repeal bill MORE (N.Y.) and Bob MenendezRobert MenendezThe Mideast-focused Senate letter we need to see Taiwan deserves to participate in United Nations The way forward on the Iran nuclear deal under President Trump MORE (N.J.), have voiced support for the disapproval resolution, while centrist Democrats such as Sens. Joe DonnellyJoe DonnellySanders, Democrats introduce minimum wage bill Updated fuel regulations would modernize options at gas pumps Mnuchin mum as Dems press for answers on tax reform, Dodd-Frank MORE (Ind.) and Claire McCaskillClaire McCaskillSanders, Democrats introduce minimum wage bill Mnuchin: WH won't double-count economic growth Technology's role in human trafficking cannot be ignored MORE (Mo.) have already said they back the nuclear deal. McConnell must scrounge up at least four more Democratic votes in the next two weeks.

On his right flank, conservative colleagues are challenging him to include a policy rider to defund Planned Parenthood on a stopgap spending measure to keep the government funded beyond Sept. 30, something Democrats staunchly oppose.

Senate Republican leaders have been dreading the return from the August recess for weeks.

“We knew September would be awful,” said a Senate GOP leadership aide. 

GOPUSA, a group dedicated to ginning up the conservative base, emailed a message to supporters on Tuesday, urging them to pressure McConnell.

“The phone lines must be burned up. The stream of calls must be incessant, unremitting, and insistent. Our senators must be urged, politely but assertively, to defund Planned Parenthood and to defund it now,” the group wrote.

While a continuing resolution (CR) funding the government would probably pass the Senate without such a rider, it will be much more difficult in the House.

Yet McConnell is the leader who has shouldered the burden of guaranteeing that Republicans will avoid the fiasco of 2013, when a 16-day shutdown cratered their approval numbers.

McConnell, protecting a narrow Senate majority, issued a blunt warning to conservatives on Monday.

“The president’s made it very clear he’s not going to sign any bill that includes defunding of Planned Parenthood, so that’s another issue that awaits a new president, hopefully with a different point of view about Planned Parenthood,” he told WYMT, a Kentucky television station.

This puts him at odds with conservative colleagues running for president who are courting the Republican base.

Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzFEC faults Cruz on Goldman Sachs loans in rare unanimous vote CBO score underlines GOP tensions on ObamaCare repeal Republicans go to battle over pre-existing conditions MORE’s (R-Texas) campaign has launched a new television ad pledging he will “prosecute and defund Planned Parenthood.”

Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulSenate gears up for fight on Trump's 0B Saudi Arabia arms sale Paul: 0B Saudi arms deal ‘a travesty’ Senate feels pressure for summer healthcare vote MORE (R-Ky.), another White House hopeful, earlier this month declared, “There’s no reason in the world we have to fund Planned Parenthood at all.”

Campaigning in New Hampshire last week, Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioSenate panel could pass new Russia sanctions this summer McConnell on Trump: 'We could do with a little less drama' Taking the easy layup: Why brain cancer patients depend on it MORE (R-Fla.) said Congress should strip money from the group and give it to other federally qualified local health providers.

The White House hopeful argued that Democrats would be blamed for a shutdown — a prediction conservatives have made in the past during similar standoffs.

“Are [Democrats] willing to shut down the government to protect one organization that sells fetal tissue?” Rubio asked.

Democrats are rubbing their hands in anticipation.

Asked about the possibility of Republicans moving aimed at Planned Parenthood, Senate Democratic Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidGOP frustrated by slow pace of Trump staffing This week: Congress awaits Comey testimony Will Republicans grow a spine and restore democracy? MORE (Nev.) quipped, “Good luck with that.”

Senior Democratic aides in the upper chamber say any stopgap measure that includes a rider defunding Planned Parenthood will not attract 60 votes. They feel confident that Republicans will get the blame for a shutdown no matter the cause, just as they did in 2013 and the winter of 1995-1996. 

McConnell acknowledged that political reality when he spoke to reporters in a midyear press conference just before the August recess. But convincing conservatives in his own conference and the House is another matter.

“Clearly, Sen. McConnell is going to be under pressure from hardcore voters. The question is, is he going to be able to navigate that when you have a number of senators running for president likely to put more pressure on him?” said John Ullyot, a Republican strategist and former senior Senate GOP aide. 

McConnell doesn’t have much time to come up with a solution. Time is short because Congress is on recess the first week of the month and legislative days will be lost in the observance of the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Pope Francis’s visit to Congress on Sept. 24 will also take up valuable calendar time. 

Conservative Rep. Mick Mulvaney (S.C.), along with 17 other GOP colleagues, sent a letter to House Republican leaders last month, pressing them on Planned Parenthood.

“I vehemently urge House Republican leadership to use every available tool to strip this organization of any and all taxpayer funds and take measures to prevent the group from receiving taxpayer dollars in the future,” Mulvaney said in a statement. “Furthermore, we will not support any funding measure that provides taxpayer dollars for this organization.”

Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerTrump aide: Boehner is the disaster Boehner: Tax reform is 'just a bunch of happy talk' Lobbying World MORE (R-Ohio) has not indicated how he will handle the matter.

“The leaders will make decisions on the CR and other issues when they return next week,” he said.

Dave Schnittger, BoehnerJohn BoehnerTrump aide: Boehner is the disaster Boehner: Tax reform is 'just a bunch of happy talk' Lobbying World MORE’s former deputy chief of staff, said his old boss has squeezed through tight spots before. “There are challenges ahead but there are always challenges ahead. It’s the nature of leadership. It’s a situation not dissimilar from situations the Speaker and other members of the leadership team have faced before.”

Boehner and McConnell, who meet regularly, split earlier this year over a bill funding the Department of Homeland Security, which got tripped up over a rider repealing Obama’s executive action on immigration enforcement.

Some Senate Republicans feel a growing sense of exasperation with their House colleagues.

“The reality is that Obama remains president of the United States and Republicans have only 54 votes in the Senate,” said a senior Senate GOP aide.

Conservative strategists say McConnell should start moving measures to defund Planned Parenthood immediately after Labor Day so he can argue that he’s done all he can to curb the group. But he won’t have the opportunity because debating Iran is a priority that must be voted on by Sept. 17.

Brian Darling, a GOP strategist and former senior Senate aide, said, “They’d be smart to start moving bills to defund Planned Parenthood right away and not spend too much time on this Iran deal. It appears the leadership will wait until the last minute and try to bully members into voting for a CR that funds Planned Parenthood.”

Ullyot said, “September is likely to be one of the most challenging months for Sen. McConnell since becoming leader. On the Iran question, it looked before recess the momentum was on the Republican side, and now Democrats might have enough votes to block a measure altogether. That’s a big reversal from going into the August recess.”