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 McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - Democratic debates: Miami nice or spice? Democrats leery of Sanders plan to cancel student loan debt GOP lays debate trap for 2020 Democrats 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 (Chuck) Ellis SchumerMcConnell-backed Super PAC says nominating Roy Moore would be 'gift wrapping' seat to Dems McConnell vows to 'vigorously' oppose Moore's Senate bid Pelosi: Trump delay on Harriet Tubman is 'an insult to the hopes of millions' MORE (N.Y.) and Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezSenate to vote on blocking Trump's Saudi arms deal as soon as this week There is a severe physician shortage and it will only worsen Democrats ask Fed to probe Trump's Deutsche Bank ties MORE (N.J.), have voiced support for the disapproval resolution, while centrist Democrats such as Sens. Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyConservatives spark threat of bloody GOP primaries Anti-corruption group hits Congress for ignoring K Street, Capitol Hill 'revolving door' K Street giants scoop up coveted ex-lawmakers MORE (Ind.) and Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillConservatives spark threat of bloody GOP primaries Congress needs to work to combat the poverty, abuse and neglect issues that children face Lobbying world 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 CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGOP lays debate trap for 2020 Democrats O'Rourke on Senate bid backer Beyoncé: I will have to 'earn her support' for 2020 Hickenlooper, Bennet bring deep ties to 2020 debate stage MORE’s (R-Texas) campaign has launched a new television ad pledging he will “prosecute and defund Planned Parenthood.”

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulGOP lays debate trap for 2020 Democrats Overnight Defense: Trump says he doesn't need exit strategy with Iran | McConnell open to vote on Iran war authorization | Senate panel advances bill to restrict emergency arms sales Senate panel advances bill to restrict emergency arms sales 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 Antonio RubioGOP lays debate trap for 2020 Democrats Mellman: Are primary debates different? Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids — Trump issues order to bring transparency to health care prices | Fight over billions in ObamaCare payments heads to Supreme Court 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 Mason ReidSenators briefed on US Navy's encounters with UFOs: report Key endorsements: A who's who in early states Trump weighs in on UFOs in Stephanopoulos interview 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 Andrew BoehnerTed Cruz, AOC have it right on banning former members of Congress from becoming lobbyists Rep. Amash stokes talk of campaign against Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Trump, Biden go toe-to-toe in Iowa 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 Andrew BoehnerTed Cruz, AOC have it right on banning former members of Congress from becoming lobbyists Rep. Amash stokes talk of campaign against Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Trump, Biden go toe-to-toe in Iowa 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.”