McConnell’s Shutdown Conundrum

There is “no possibility of a government shutdown” in the new Republican Congress, incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told TIME magazine after his party’s blowout victory on Tuesday night.

But the Kentucky Republican simultaneously promised to use government funding bills to rein in President Barack Obama’s regulations and executive actions, saying there will be “prescriptions of certain things that we think he ought not to be doing by either reducing the funding or restricting the funding.”

These two stances — expressed by McConnell throughout the 2014 campaign — expose a strategic dilemma. President Barack Obama will carry the veto pen for another two years, which means the only foolproof leverage the new Republican Congress will have to force policy reforms he opposes is the threat of a government shutdown, through the power of the purse.

Without that, there would be little downside to vetoing legislation.

Asked about the possibility of executive action on immigration, McConnell told TIME that “the way that you push back on executive overreach is through the funding process.” Republicans have also expressed enthusiasm for using the funding process to unwind environmental regulations and health care reforms.

The conundrum: if there’s no threat of a shutdown, there’s no clear motivation for Obama to sign legislation that unwinds his main achievements. Conservatives like Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Mike Lee (R-UT) recognized this in 2013 when they led the Republican House into a shutdown over the prospect of defunding Obamacare. But it failed because Obama refused to budge.

It’s plausible that Obama will be more inclined to accept Republican-led legislation that’s passed by the new Congress. Without the “firewall” of a Democratic-led Senate, he’s likely to see more bills on his desk that he doesn’t like. But when it comes to his signature executive moves, the most powerful weapon in McConnell’s arsenal sounds like one he’s hesitant to use.

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