Mitch McConnell gives up: How he traded all legislative goals to appease the nuts

The GOP will waste its best legislative vehicle on a stunt vote. Abandoning all hope for progress already, are we?

Published March 18, 2015 6:12PM (EDT)

Mitch McConnell               (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Mitch McConnell (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

There aren't many really important policy implications to the non-binding House and Senate GOP budget resolutions being unveiled this week. Sure, they'll include all sorts of ideological plans about privatizing Medicare and throwing poor people into the wood chipper once and for all. But for now, that's more of a theoretical exercise in what they would do with unrestrained power. The line items will all get worked out later in appropriations bills subject to Democratic filibusters and presidential vetoes.

But passing a joint, conferenced GOP budget resolution between the House and Senate is critical for Republican lawmakers for one particular reason: reconciliation. If the GOP can get a budget resolution passed with reconciliation instructions, it leaves them with a one-shot vehicle for getting whatever legislation their hearts desire past a Senate filibuster.

And, as The Hill reports this morning, GOP leaders and crucial conference chairs seem to have resigned themselves to using reconciliation to pass a repeal of the Affordable Care Act. They are choosing to waste it on something that President Obama won't feel a scintilla of pressure to sign into law.

In other words: the new, unified Republican Congress has already given up on whatever ambitious legislative plans they might have had for the 114th Congress, and is already in point-collecting mode ahead of the 2016 election.

The "use reconciliation to repeal Obamacare!" strategy has been a favorite in conservative circles since the weeks before last November's election, when it became clear that Republicans would take back the Senate. Conservative pressure groups were pushing then-minority leader Mitch McConnell to use reconciliation on an Obamacare repeal, a strategy to which McConnell was originally cool. His spokesman put out a "yeah, sure, we'll think about it" statement, just to shut up conservatives. But once the election passed, the conference, with a few doltish hold-outs, seemed for a hot minute to have wrapped its head around the fact that using reconciliation on something frivolous wasn't the best use of this mechanism.

Now that's changed, and the plan is back on. "Even though the ObamaCare repeal bill will not become law this Congress," The Hill reports, "Republicans believe they will benefit politically if they can force Obama into a veto. They claim that would send the message to voters that Republicans just need the White House in order to shake up Washington."

This makes some sense as a political message. If they can show that they have the parliamentary skill to get a repeal to the President's desk, that could help energize Republican voters on Election Day 2016. (And it should be said that, even without the filibuster threat, this will require some serious parliamentary skill. Legislation passed through budget reconciliation has to reduce the deficit if it's to be permanent. This is why the Bush tax cuts, which definitely didn't reduce the deficit, were scheduled to sunset after 10 years. Republicans don't like to admit it, but repealing Obamacare would increase the deficit, so some other deficit-reduction reduction measures would have to be thrown into the package to get it past the watchful gaze of the Senate parliamentarian.)

There are a couple of reasons why GOP leaders, who had been rolling their eyes at this strategy, have come around to it.

The first is simple and short-term: GOP leaders need conservatives' votes for their budget resolutions, and this is a great way to coerce them.

The second is that they're given up on achieving what were always far-flung legislative ambitions, like corporate tax reform. This is largely a story about Mitch McConnell.

Ever since he folded on DHS funding, McConnell has been aggressively trying to reassert his conservative credentials instead of working to cobble together bipartisan legislation. He made the abrupt choice to fast-track legislation on Iran that had been nearing a veto-proof majority, sparking a Democratic backlash. He tried to jam Democrats with abortion language on human trafficking legislation and is pledging not to hold a confirmation vote on AG nominee Loretta Lynch until they give way. And now he and his budget chairman are going along with this ACA repeal strategy to appease the right.

McConnell seems to have resigned himself to a binary strategy for the remainder of this Congress: He'll have to defy conservatives on necessary things like increasing the debt ceiling or funding the government, and he'll accrue the capital he needs to do that by appeasing the right at every other turn. He'll dodge the disasters by precluding any triumphs. Well, fine. No one ever expected many feats of legislative heroism out of this Congress, but it's still impressive that they've abandoned all hope only a couple of months in.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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