McConnell's looming apocalypse: GOP conservatives plan budget showdown

The Beltway is pretending that the GOP wants to “govern.” A showdown over a budget deal will test that premise

Published November 17, 2014 5:21PM (EST)

Barack Obama, Mitch McConnell                     (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Jeff Malet, montage by Salon)
Barack Obama, Mitch McConnell (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Jeff Malet, montage by Salon)

Politico brought us a head-scratcher Monday morning, one of those counterintuitive Beltway hot takes, “Obama turns to McConnell to secure his legacy.” As long as you’re willing to accept Politico’s definition of securing Obama’s “legacy,” it makes some sense.

But really, how long are White House folks going to indulge the fantasy that incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is a reasonable guy who’d like to make a deal with the president? The piece features some interesting reporting on how Obama himself, and his staffers, have dissed both House Speaker John Boehner and current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for ineffectiveness and obstruction, while praising McConnell as “a grown-up.”

Sadly, that’s high praise indeed coming from Team Obama, which has valued the president’s image as “Grown Up in Chief” over other potential roles, such as “Guy Who Recognized Irrational Republican Obstruction and Didn’t Try To Make Bad Deals.” For now, the White House wants to play along with the fiction that Republicans want to "govern," which Jay Rosen breaks down remarkably well here.

To their credit, writers Edward-Isaac Dovere and Manu Raju present evidence that maybe, possibly Obama can’t count on McConnell. Although he has promised to avert another government shutdown over the budget, he has also promised to attach unpopular riders to spending bills that might force Obama to veto them, thus triggering another showdown and potential government shutdown. He made that threat in an interview with Raju last summer, as well as in a secret meeting with the Koch brothers and their donor network.

Maybe it was a ploy to excite the GOP base, while he was fighting what seemed like a close campaign for reelection. Or maybe it’s what he plans to do. No one knows for sure. It’s true that McConnell is circulating a report showing how badly the 2013 government shutdown hurt his party’s standing. But with conservatives vowing to use their budget powers to fight Obama’s promised executive action on immigration, McConnell’s commitment to “governing” will be tested early and often.

The first test will be whether he and Boehner push for a long-term budget deal this week, or cave in to conservatives who want to preserve their power by passing a short-term deal to fund the government only until early 2015. The Washington Post’s Robert Costa reports that “Republican leaders think short-term measures could be the best way to address both the ire within their caucus and their desire to show the American people they can govern.”

But Costa goes on to note the flaw in those “leaders'” assumption that they can placate conservatives while avoiding a government shutdown: The only leverage a short-term deal provides is its implicit threat of a coming showdown, and shutdown, when the new Congress convenes in January. Once again, Boehner and McConnell may find that their strategy for placating conservatives in fact places them at the conservatives’ mercy.

But the oddest thing about the Politico piece is the claim that McConnell can help Obama “secure his legacy.” From the left and right, there’s fairly broad agreement that the Affordable Care Act is the cornerstone of Obama’s legacy – and it’s not even mentioned. There seems to be some hope that McConnell will work with Reid to approve pending agency nominations before the end of the year, but that’s not exactly a legacy.

No, it seems as though “legacy” is defined by Obama’s capacity to make deals with his sworn enemies. The president is partly to blame for that definition, since he pursued compromise with Republicans long past the time when it was reasonable to expect it. He may be making that mistake again, or it may be a necessary posture, as he waits for McConnell’s party to force the new Senate leader’s hand.

By Joan Walsh