By Alexander Bolton - 09/02/15 06:00 AM EDT
September is shaping up to be a headache for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellRubio: GOP Congress could go in different direction than Trump Pelosi blasts GOP leaders for silence on Trump Reid: Groping accusations show Trump’s ‘sickness’ 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.
So far only two Democrats, Sens. Charles SchumerCharles SchumerImmigration was barely covered in the debates GOP leaders advise members to proceed with caution on Trump Senate Dems demand answers from Wells Fargo over treatment of military MORE (N.Y.) and Bob MenendezRobert MenendezWarren, Menendez question shakeup at Wells Fargo Democrats press Wells Fargo CEO for more answers on scandal Dem senator: Louisiana Republican 'found Jesus' on flood funding MORE (N.J.), have voiced support for the disapproval resolution, while centrist Democrats such as Sens. Joe DonnellyJoe DonnellyGreat Lakes senators seek boost for maritime system Liberal groups urge Schumer to reject Bayh for Banking gavel A dozen senators call for crackdown on Chinese steel MORE (Ind.) and Claire McCaskillClaire McCaskillMcCaskill offers Trump 'Mean Girls' advice Trump's taxes bump Miss Universe from headlines Dem on NYT report: Trump 'walks away with a golden ticket' 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 CruzIs Georgia turning blue? Five takeaways from money race Club for Growth: Anti-Trump spending proved to be 'good call' MORE’s (R-Texas) campaign has launched a new television ad pledging he will “prosecute and defund Planned Parenthood.”
Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulWhat the 'Bernie Sanders wing of the GOP' can teach Congress GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election How low is the bar for presidential candidates, anyway? 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 RubioRubio: GOP Congress could go in different direction than Trump Poll: Clinton holds 4-point lead in Florida Republicans, it's time to stop asking 'What would Reagan do?' 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 ReidPelosi blasts GOP leaders for silence on Trump Latinos build a wall between Trump and White House in new ad The true (and incredible) story of Hill staffers on the industry payroll 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 may pose problem for Ryan in Speaker vote Conservatives backing Trump keep focus on Supreme Court Vote House Republicans out 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 may pose problem for Ryan in Speaker vote Conservatives backing Trump keep focus on Supreme Court Vote House Republicans out 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.”