Where’s Mitch McConnell?
Not at the big White House Rose Garden press briefing Friday with President Donald Trump and other Republican leaders to talk about negotiations with Democrats over the two-week government shutdown. McConnell was back in his Capitol Hill office.
His absence reinforced the growing perception that McConnell, for years Washington’s consummate dealmaker, is sitting this one out.
McConnell aides said the Kentucky Republican, a master of insider minutiae, would’ve attended but did not know about the event before he left the White House for the Capitol. McConnell did participate in a private meeting earlier with Trump and congressional leaders.
Trump told reporters in the Rose Garden that McConnell had been at the White House for hours and was “right at the top of everything we’re doing.
“Mitch McConnell has been fantastic,” Trump said. “He has been really great.”
Yet Democrats and even some Republicans have fretted that McConnell has kept his distance during the shutdown, insisting that the Senate will only vote for a spending bill that Trump will sign, while excoriating Democrats for refusing to give Trump any money for a wall at the border with Mexico.
“My friends across the aisle understand these ground rules perfectly well,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “They know that a solution will need to be palatable to House Democrats and Senate Republicans alike. They know that making laws takes a presidential signature. We all learned that in grade school.”
McConnell on Thursday rejected suggestions that he’d been sidelined, insisting there was no role for him to play, as there had been when he was in charge of delivering Republican votes to a Democratic president.
“Now the role is reversed and ultimately the solution to this is a deal between the President and Nancy and Chuck because we need some of Chuck’s votes and obviously we need Nancy’s support,” he said, citing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Democrats have been able to hit back hard.
“Why is Leader McConnell shuffling off to the sidelines, pointing his fingers at everyone else and saying he won’t be involved?” Schumer , D-New York, asked on the Senate floor, hours before pictures of Trump standing with Republican leaders, but not McConnell, began to circulate on Twitter.
The reason, Schumer opined, “because he realizes this president, President Trump, is erratic, unreliable and sometimes even irrational.”
The political calculus is tough for McConnell, who now faces governing in a divided Congress, with Democrats on Thursday electing as Speaker Pelosi,D-California, who has pledged to deny Trump money for the wall. McConnell is up for reelection in 2020 iTrump is far more popular
McConnell, though, also has to look out for Senate Republicans up for re-election in states that Trump lost in 2016. On Thursday, one of those senators, Cory Gardner of Colorado, called for re-opening the government even without a deal on Trump’s wall. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who also faces a challenging re-election told Politico she’d like to see Trump support least part of the House Democrats’ plan to reopen the government.
McConnell has long made it clear he’s no fan of shutdowns and believes they are bad for the party in charge. He told reporters before Christmas that he didn’t believe there would be a shutdown, reprising one of his favorite phrases that “there’s no education in the second kick of a mule.”
McConnell has long been a fixture in finding ways, often unusual ways, to get out of messes like these. In 2013, he helped broker a deal with then Vice President Joe Biden to avoid a looming financial crisis. The two Senate veterans and old-school politicians reached a compromise that no one really liked, but that enough members of both parties could tolerate.
They had teamed up two years earlier to end a weeks-long impasse over raising the nation’s debt ceiling limit. McConnell first proposed a multi-stage approach to raising the limit, providing the outline of a plan that was later adopted.
“This is where he’s always been the most effective, in these kind of situations,” said Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Kentucky. He charged that McConnell, by pledging not to take up legislation that Trump won’t sign, is sending a message that the president has the final say over legislation, even though Congress has the ability to override any veto.
“I suspect part of the problem is that he’s working with a president who’s not rational,” Yarmuth said. “He’s kind of at a loss. The normal formula is not there.”
Despite McConnell’s take-no-prisoners approach on the Senate floor, observers have long said he has a record of finding common ground.
Behind the scenes, McConnell repeatedly has shown a veteran senator’s knack for getting most of what he wants, not the 100 percent that less experienced or more doctrinaire legislators seek.
Veteran senators suggested it was too early to draw big conclusions from the current episode.
“Don’t underestimate Mitch McConnell,” Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, told reporters.
McConnell’s allies, including some who are beginning to feel pressure to end the shutdown, said they’re confident McConnell could bring the situation to a close — if Trump would listen to him.
“McConnell never shows his hand,” said Rep. James Comer, R-Kentucky. “He could be at the White House right now talking, or maybe he’s frustrated, I don’t think that anyone us would ever know. But I would strongly encourage the president to keep in close contact with Sen. McConnell to come up with a solution.”
Though Trump insisted the Friday meeting was productive, McConnell was less optimistic when he returned from the White House and briefly spoke to reporters about what he called “the situation we find ourselves in.”
He said Trump had agreed to designate his top people to sit down over the weekend with congressional staffers to find a solution.
Though most thorny issues in Washington are often solved by kicking it up to the top, McConnell said the proposal was encouraging.
“We’ll have at least a working group of people who know most about this subject to see if they can reach an agreement and then punt it back to us for final sign-off,” McConnell said.
At the White House, Trump said he’s prepared for the partial government shutdown to last months or even years.