McConnell goes hands-off on coronavirus relief bill

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been careful to maintain his distance from the negotiations between White House officials and Democratic leaders on coronavirus relief legislation.

McConnell’s decision not to participate directly in talks between Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Democratic leaders has struck some colleagues as odd.

Senate Republicans say McConnell has proceeded cautiously because any deal that emerges is likely to divide the Senate GOP conference. They note the GOP leader has made it a practice in recent years to avoid taking up issues that divide Republicans if possible.

“You got 20 Republicans who are not on board,” said a Republican senator who requested anonymity to discuss why the GOP leader is keeping his distance from the talks.

“You have a lot of conservative folks asking, ‘What are we doing here? Is this really helpful? We’re saddling the next generation and the next generation with huge debt,’ ” the lawmaker added.

“Considering where members are right now, it’s a good thing for him to step back and let the members come to him. I don’t think there would be anything to be gained if he were to go out on a limb and endorse this, this or this,” the source added. “When you’re riding at the point of the posse, you better check over your shoulder to see if the posse is still there. Otherwise, why take the first arrow?”

McConnell’s goal has been to diffuse responsibility for getting a deal to the broader Senate Republican Conference, which has the dual benefit of letting GOP colleagues feel more involved while insulating himself from a potential backlash if the resulting bill sparks the anger of fiscal hawks.  

Senate Small Business Committee Chairman Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said McConnell has made it clear that he doesn’t want the relief bill to be dictated from the top.

“He’s also frankly said that he wants it to be negotiated by members, like the last [relief bill] was. He doesn’t want it to be a top-down bill. What he wants to do is sort of agree on areas to work on and then empower the members to do different task forces, the chairmen and ranking members to meet and work out the details,” Rubio said.

McConnell’s decision to stay out of the room has made it more necessary for Mnuchin and Meadows to attend Senate Republican Conference lunches during the week to provide periodic updates and listen to senators’ concerns about the trajectory of the talks. That has allowed senior White House officials to hear about the deficit concerns held by multiple GOP senators.

Democrats maintain that McConnell is worried about a rebellion within his own conference.

“I’ve asked Republicans, ‘how could he possibly explain this?’ Getting up on the floor every day criticizing Democrats for their ideas, not putting a bill forward, not even going to the negotiation. I’ve never seen anything like this. Never,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

“His caucus is hopelessly fractured. He realizes anything he supports will be opposed by half of his caucus and he’s afraid of the consequences,” he added.

Election prognosticators say the battle for control of the Senate is a toss-up as Republicans, who hold 53 seats, must defend 23 seats in November while Democrats have only 12 up for reelection. 

If moderates such as Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) are voted out of office, conservatives who are opposed to another big spending bill will make up a greater percentage of the GOP conference.

Two other more centrist members — Sens. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) — are retiring at year’s end. 

McConnell’s own reelection appears probable after a new Morning Consult poll this week showed him with a commanding 17-point lead over Democratic challenger Amy McGrath.

McConnell says he plans to remain as Senate Republican leader even if the GOP loses control of the upper chamber. It is highly unlikely McConnell would be challenged for the top GOP post next year. 

Scott Jennings, a Kentucky-based GOP strategist who has advised McConnell’s past campaigns, said the GOP leader recognizes that him being in the room during talks with Democratic leaders wouldn’t necessarily yield a deal any sooner.

“Kentucky’s experienced one of the highest unemployment crises in the country over [COVID-19]. We’ve been hit economically very hard. What his constituents want is their elected officials to engage on this and do what they can do,” he said.

Jennings said McConnell “plays these things the way he thinks he needs to play them for that specific moment and to get a result.”

“I’ve heard him say many times lately that he’s not looking for grandstanding, he’s looking for outcomes. And so if he needs to be in a room, he’ll be in the room. If he doesn’t need to be in the room and thinks that’s more helpful to getting an outcome, that’s what he does,” he added. 

Colleagues think McConnell wants to get a deal done, even though it’s certain there will be parts of the bill he doesn’t like. 

“His job as majority leader is to shepherd legislation and get results,” Rubio said. 

McConnell told reporters Tuesday that he is willing to accept a deal between the White House and Democratic leaders. 

“I am prepared to support [it], even if I have some problems with certain parts of it,” he said.   

As majority leader, McConnell has been careful to avoid bringing issues to the floor that badly divide his conference. It’s a major reason why he delayed bringing bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation to the floor until the lame-duck session in 2018, by which time President Trump was solidly behind a proposal that ultimately passed and was signed into law. 

McConnell has played a central role in recent years in helping to broker deals when Democrats and Republicans were deadlocked over major policy problems that threatened to have serious implications for the nation’s economy. He cut a deal with then-Vice President Joe Biden at the end of 2012 to extend many of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts and get past the so-called fiscal cliff that had stymied bipartisan negotiators for months. McConnell reached out to Biden when it became clear that then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was prepared to let the tax breaks lapse.

In the summer of 2011, McConnell helped craft a compromise to raise the nation’s debt limit by finding a mechanism to allow Congress to raise borrowing authority passively. The compromise ended a weeks-long stalemate and helped the nation avert a default. 

This year, however, he has instead opted to receive regular briefings from Mnuchin and Meadows. 

“He’s made it very clear to all of us, he’s at the table without being at the table,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). 

Tags Chuck Grassley Cory Gardner Dick Durbin Donald Trump Harry Reid Joe Biden Joni Ernst Lamar Alexander Marco Rubio Mark Meadows Martha McSally Mitch McConnell Pat Roberts Steven Mnuchin Susan Collins
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