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Heavy burden falls to McConnell

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden's climate plans can cut emissions and also be good politics Acting Defense secretary makes surprise trip to Somalia As Biden administration ramps up, Trump legal effort drags on MORE has a hard road ahead.

The Kentucky Republican will have to take the lead later this year on raising the debt ceiling and preventing a government shutdown due to Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerPrinciples to unify America Feehery: A possible House Speaker conundrum for Democrats Obama on bipartisanship: 'There is a way to reach out and not be a sap' MORE’s (R-Ohio) resignation, GOP strategists say. 

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That could be a heavy burden to carry. With BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerPrinciples to unify America Feehery: A possible House Speaker conundrum for Democrats Obama on bipartisanship: 'There is a way to reach out and not be a sap' MORE no longer in charge of the House, McConnell is likely to become more of a target for conservatives who feel the GOP has not done enough to take on President Obama.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a presidential hopeful, and Louisiana GOP chairman Roger Villere have already called on McConnell to step down, arguing it’s time for a fresh start in both chambers of Congress.

Such calls prompted Senate Republican Whip John CornynJohn CornynCornyn says election outcome 'becoming increasingly clear': report Top GOP senator: Biden should be getting intel briefings GOP senator congratulates Biden, says Trump should accept results MORE (R-Texas) to state that the majority leader “has overwhelming support within the conference.”

But the pressure on the GOP leader is likely to grow.

With his majority at risk in a difficult election cycle, McConnell this month resisted calls from the right to risk a shutdown over defunding Planned Parenthood, calling it an “exercise in futility” while President Obama remains in the White House.

Boehner has taken a similar line.

The mostly unified front highlighted McConnell’s close relationship with Boehner, which has allowed them over the years to choreograph their political maneuvers more than people realize. 

But he hasn’t spent nearly as much time working with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who is widely expected to succeed Boehner as Speaker.

Whoever is elected Speaker — be it McCarthy or someone else — is likely to face intense pressure to not bow to McConnell. 

While that creates real challenges for the Senate leader, he is likely to be in a stronger position than the new Speaker, who will be wary of angering the conservatives who constantly threatened Boehner’s job.  

“Mitch McConnell is going to play the role he always does, a cool hand, a steady hand on the tiller. He’ll be able to guide us through this uncertainty,” said Patrick Davis, a GOP strategist and former political director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

“The responsibility for avoiding a shutdown falls on the new Speaker and his team, Mitch McConnell and Obama,” he added. “I think McCarthy has to look to McConnell for process. So much of what happens in the House is dependant on what can get through the Senate.”

The Senate this week is expected to approve a “clean” bill funding the government through Dec. 11 and send it to the House, where it is expected to pass, setting a template for other do-or-die legislation this fall.

McConnell is less concerned about restive conservatives than about a Republican winning the White House and protecting endangered incumbents in swing states such as Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. That means forging deals that avert crises, even though they may incense the far right.

“The Democrats and the White House recognize that he is somebody who puts the good of the country first and foremost and has the support of his conference,” said Billy Piper, a longtime former aide and political advisor to McConnell.

“McConnell’s focus will be on having a functional governing majority in Congress so we can get things done that are important without doing things that are detrimental,” he added.

There is a growing sense among Republicans that McConnell will be the one to work with Democrats to pass a yearlong funding bill and debt-limit increase, because McCarthy has to worry about the newly emboldened House Freedom Caucus.

“I think McCarthy is going to be constrained by the force of the House Freedom Caucus. Clearly they have assumed a commanding role I don’t think any faction of a party has had since the Democrats were confronted by the boll weevils in 1981,” Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, said of conservative Democrats who rebelled against their leadership 35 years ago to support then-President Ronald Reagan’s agenda.

“McCarthy would be in a much tougher position than [former Democratic Speaker Tip] O’Neill,” he added.

The instability in the House has shifted much of the burden of avoiding disaster this fall onto the Senate.

Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) said what happens in the House is largely out of McCarthy’s hands unless he stands up to Tea Party-aligned colleagues.

“In many ways it’s up to those 35 or 40 anarchists who want to bring the House down,” King said. “I don’t know what else John Boehner could have done to satisfy them.

“I will support Kevin in whatever has to be done, but I can see us in the same situation where you have people threatening to shut the House down unless they get their way,” he added. “The time has come to be tough and to stand up to people. You can’t let 40 people shut down the House of Representatives.”

Passing bills with strong bipartisan majorities in the Senate will give them more momentum in the House, GOP strategists say, pointing to the 2012 fiscal-cliff deal, which McConnell brokered, that avoided the expiration of all the George W. Bush-era tax cuts.

“The idea [of the nation’s founders] was to have the House be the more chaotic branch and the Senate be the more work-together branch,” said Ron Kaufman, a Republican strategist. “Maybe this will cause the Senate to step up and take a bigger leadership role in making it work.”

One of the challenges facing McConnell is quickly crafting a working relationship with McCarthy or whoever takes the Speaker’s gavel.

“They don’t have the same history as he and Boehner by virtue of the fact that he and Boehner took the job at the same time in their respective conferences,” said McConnell’s former chief of staff, Josh Holmes.

He and Boehner developed a close rapport through years of regular meetings.

Don Stewart, McConnell’s spokesman, said his boss “just typically dealt with the Speaker” but noted that he would attend House Republican leadership meetings “from time to time.”