As Mitch McConnell readies for a 2020 re-election bid, his unwavering support for President Donald Trump’s border wall with Mexico gives the senator an important boost with the GOP’s conservative wing — activists who have not always been on his side.
Rep. James Comer, R-Kentucky, a McConnell ally, said he had heard “more compliments” about the Senate majority leader this week than ever before from members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
Last month the caucus pressured Trump to reject a Senate spending bill aimed at averting the shutdown because it didn’t contain money for the wall Trump promised as a presidential candidate.
“Conservatives want Trump to have a win on the wall and Mitch McConnell is standing firm with Trump, even though they know probably deep down, ideologically, he would like to compromise and end the shutdown,” Comer said.
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McConnell has said consistently for weeks that he won’t entertain any legislation that doesn’t include wall funding, even as the Democratic-led House passes spending bills to re-open the government. Conservatives “appreciate he’s standing with the president,” Comer said.
Saturday, McConnell, who had previously said he would only move legislation if Trump and Democrats reached an agreement, again sided firmly with Trump.
Moments after Trump went on national television Saturday and offered to trade $5.7 billion for the wall with limited protection for some immigrants, including those who were brought illegally to the country, McConnell, who has taken a back seat in negotiations, announced he’d schedule a Senate vote next week.
“Unlike the bills that have come from the House over the past few weeks, this proposal could actually resolve this impasse,” McConnell said. “Everyone has made their point—now it’s time to make a law.”
Democrats had already rejected the Trump proposal. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called it a “compilation of several previously rejected initiatives, each of which is unacceptable and in total, do not represent a good faith effort to restore certainty to people’s lives.”
Democrats have repeatedly assailed McConnell for blocking House measures to re-open the government, arguing that the Senate could override a Trump veto. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, at one point took to the Senate floor to accuse McConnell of “abdicating his responsibility.”
“ Leader McConnell knows he has the power to end the shutdown,” Schumer said Thursday. “ The only reason we’re in this prolonged stalemate is that my friend, the Republican Leader, refuses to take up any legislation to reopen the government.”
McConnell made it clear last month that he didn’t want a shutdown, telling reporters there was “no education in the second kick of a mule.”
But he’s the leader of a caucus with 22 Republicans up for re-election in 2020, including 20 from states that Trump won. None of them want to give an inch to a potential primary challenge.
McConnell himself acknowledges he’ll be one of national Democrats’ top targets in 2020. But he’s running for re-election in a state where Trump remains popular, more popular than the six-term senator.
He’s learned lessons.
“McConnell is going to be seen as backing up the president, that’s going to help him at the end of the day with the conservative base in Kentucky, and nationally,” said Jason Pye, the group’s vice president of legislative affairs for FreedomWorks, a conservative group that in the past raised questions about the senator’s loyalty to its causes.
“The far right wing of the party has kind of been a problem for him in the past but I think he’s solidified with that wing of the party,” Comer said.
McConnell in 2014 successfully fended off a primary challenge from now-Gov. Matt Bevin, who has said he will run for re-election this year. He has yet to file the official paperwork, prompting speculation about his plans.
Bevin’s 2014 bid drew support from a number of conservative groups, including the Senate Conservatives Fund, the Madison Project and FreedomWorks,. They all questioned McConnell’s conservative bona fides.
The conservatives fund at the time ran an ad lambasting McConnell for his role in the negotiations that ended the 2013 federal government shutdown.
“Conservatives asked Mitch McConnell to lead the fight against Obamacare. He didn’t listen,” the ad said. “Instead, McConnell helped Barack Obama and Harry Reid fund Obamacare.”
By resisting Democratic pressure to hold a vote on House spending bills to re-open the government, McConnell is now protecting his caucus members from casting votes that would put them at odds with Trump, said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, the policy chairman in charge of helping shape Senate Republicans’ legislative agenda.
“The majority leader is doing exactly what he should be doing,” Blunt said. “There’s no reason for us to have a lot of debates that don’t lead to any conclusion or take a lot of votes that only create bad feelings if they’re not going to create a result.” Not to mention votes that opponents could use in campaign ads to hammer incumbent Republicans.
Blunt said to ask senators to take votes that put them “in a position where they’re needlessly in conflict with the president in a way that produces no result is not what the members expect the leader to do.
“The leader is right and I don’t sense he feels any pressure to move from the position he’s in,” Blunt said.
Still, there is some pressure. Republicans facing challenging 2020 re-elections in states that Trump lost, including Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine, have called for the government to reopen even without an agreement on the border wall.
Others want the chamber to take a more active role, worried about a perception that the Senate is inert while furloughed federal workers go without paychecks and the Democratic-led House keeps passing legislation that would open parts of the government.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, said he supports McConnell’s position, noting that among Republicans “There’s a lot of support to build the wall.”
At the same time, Johnson would like to demonstrate that the Senate is working to improve the situation for affected workers. He and Collins are pushing legislation to pay the roughly 420,000 federal employees who have been forced to work without pay.
“There’s frustration with everybody,” Johnson said. “That’s why I’m trying to put forward something positive that Republicans can be for.” Johnson chairs the Senate committee on homeland security and governmental affairs.
Others insisted there is no immediate role for the Senate to play and that McConnell is rightly on the sidelines as Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi remain in an increasingly bitter battle.
“When it comes to strategy and tactics and timing, I’d be hard pressed to second-guess Mitch McConnell,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-North Dakota, who until earlier this month was a member of the House. “Nobody knows this place better than him. Nobody uses the levers better than he does. And he’s right, this fight is between Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump, and they make it clearer every day.”