Senate

McConnell wary of divisive 2016 fights

Cameron Lancaster

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), seeking to protect his majority in a tough cycle for Republicans, is leaning toward holding back several measures that have bipartisan support but are divisive in his conference.

McConnell, who will meet in the Oval Office on Tuesday with President Obama and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), is under pressure from some in his conference to take action this year on a sweeping Pacific Rim trade deal, criminal justice reform legislation and an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

{mosads}Others in McConnell’s conference are not keen to tackle any of those issues, however, and Senate GOP sources say McConnell is likely to take the safe route and not advance any bills that divide his ­conference.

“McConnell is smart to wait on issues that divide us until such time as we can achieve a consensus,” said a senior Republican aide. “There’s no question that some members want to turn to some things sooner than others. But McConnell’s duty is to do what’s best for the entire conference. Seems what’s best for the conference is to focus on the things that unite us.”

McConnell’s toughest conundrum may be over what to do about a budget.

He often bashed Democrats for not passing a budget, which is required by law, when they controlled the upper chamber.

Drafting a document that will win 51 GOP votes — a task made more difficult by projections of rising deficit numbers over the next decade — is hard enough. But passing it would require a marathon voting session that would force vulnerable incumbents to vote on politically dangerous ­amendments.

Endangered Republicans such as Sens. Ron Johnson (Wis.) and Rob Portman (Ohio) say passing a budget is not necessary since congressional leaders struck a deal last year setting the top-line spending level for the fiscal 2017 appropriations bills.

McConnell vowed earlier this year that he would make a concerted effort to pass a budget but left himself some wiggle room by stopping short of guaranteeing it.

McConnell is sticking to the safe plan of concentrating on the 12 annual appropriations bills. If he can move them individually and avoid a year-end omnibus spending package, he’ll declare the year a legislative success.

“McConnell has always focused on having the Senate be productive and for it not to get bogged down into a never ending gripe-fest between senators,” said Josh Holmes, a GOP strategist and former senior aide to McConnell.

“One of the things he encouraged going into the majority and still encourages is for people to work through their differences in committee and not have extremely divisive issues amongst Republicans come to the Senate floor unless they are must-pass reauthorizations and spending bills, in which case you don’t have any choice,” he added. 

Republicans are also divided over whether to enact filibuster reform and whether to cut a deal on overseas corporate tax reform.

Business groups have ramped up pressure on Congress to vote on the Trans-Pacific Partnership before the summer, something that Ryan and other Republicans support. Ryan said in December he wants the House to “move as soon as we can.”

But Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has serious concerns with the trade deal because it would limit the exclusive rights of pharmaceutical companies to clinical trial data.

North Carolina Sens. Richard Burr (R) and Thom Tillis (R) have balked at language that would allow member countries to regulate manufactured tobacco products. The tobacco industry supports 22,000 jobs in their home state.

Criminal justice reform also divides the conference. Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (Texas) is pushing an overhaul bill that would narrow the scope of mandatory minimum sentencing laws and give judges more discretion to impose penalties. It has the support of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Mike Lee (Utah).

But conservatives led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who is at the front of the pack in the GOP presidential primary, and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) warn it would put thousands of dangerous felons on the streets.

On the ISIS war authorization, GOP Sens. Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Graham and Rand Paul (Ky.), who is running for president, want Congress to take action. Other Republicans fear doing so would tie the next president’s hands to order military action.

While McConnell last month put Graham’s proposed AUMF on the fast-track for the Senate calendar, it is not expected to move anytime soon.

Portman, who faces a tough reelection in November, wants to tackle overseas corporate tax reform this year. He and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) unveiled a bipartisan agreement on a detailed set of principles last year, but other Republicans want to postpone the debate until 2017.

McConnell is putting it on the back burner for now. He doesn’t want to sign off on any deal that spends revenue from taxing overseas corporate profits on infrastructure or other programs.

Tags Charles Schumer Chuck Grassley Jeff Flake John Cornyn Lindsey Graham Mike Lee Mitch McConnell Orrin Hatch Paul Ryan Rand Paul Richard Burr Rob Portman Ron Johnson Ted Cruz Tom Cotton
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