Mitch McConnell’s Mischievous Government Shutdown Game

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., and GOP lawmakers speak to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 3, 2014, following a Republican caucus meeting. The Republicans disparaged the Obama ad... Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., and GOP lawmakers speak to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 3, 2014, following a Republican caucus meeting. The Republicans disparaged the Obama administration’s decision to swap Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only American soldier held captive in Afghanistan, in exchange for high-level Taliban militants detained at Guantanamo Bay. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the Senate Republican Conference chairman, listens at rear. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) MORE LESS
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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is trying to calm a growing storm over his comments — to the press and to donors — that if Republicans win the Senate he would use must-pass spending bills to force policy concessions out of President Barack Obama, at the risk of a government shutdown.

The strategy is simple. Congress has the power of the purse, and a majority leader can block routine bills to keep the government running unless they include policy reforms. If these bills don’t pass, the federal government shuts down. In other words, the threat of a shutdown is a bargaining chip for a party out of the White House to extract concessions from a president who wouldn’t otherwise give them what they want.

McConnell has been saying he’ll use that bargaining chip if he’s majority leader. He hasn’t explicitly said he’d shut down the government if he doesn’t get his way, but neither did the culprits of past shutdowns. Last year Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) insisted repeatedly, and emphatically, that he opposed a shutdown and that House Republicans had no interest in doing so. Then they did just that, and Boehner later admitted his own party was to blame.

The strategy Boehner’s caucus adopted last year is exactly what McConnell is promising he’ll do: attach policy “riders” to appropriations legislation and demand that Democrats accept them. House Republicans passed a rider to defund Obamacare; McConnell is floating a variety of possible riders.

“I assure you that in the spending bill, we will be pushing back against this bureaucracy by doing what’s called placing riders in the bill,” he told donors. “No money can be spent to do this or to do that. We’re going to go after them on health care, on financial services, on the Environmental Protection Agency… All across the federal government, we’re going to go after it.”

Why is McConnell saying this? One possible explanation is that the Republican base is hungry for confrontation with Obama and supports hardball tactics like a shutdown to force conservative reforms. McConnell is facing an unexpectedly tough reelection battle in Kentucky and needs to turn out conservative voters, many of whom view him as a corrupted creature of Washington. He may also want to quash a right-wing challenge to his leadership in the Senate.

The public airing of his strategy became problematic when the Democratic machine kicked into high gear and started feverishly painting the GOP as the party of shutdowns. That label is perilous for Republican Senate candidates who are relying on moderate and independent voters, who chafe at the idea of holding must-pass bills hostage to policy disputes.

And so McConnell is insisting he won’t actually shut down the government.

“Of course not,” McConnell told CNN in an interview. “I mean, I’m the guy that’s gotten us out of the shutdowns that some of our members have pushed us into in the past. That’s a failed policy.”

That’s true — McConnell has played a central role in securing virtually every tax-and-spending deal since Republicans took the House in 2011 and began a series of budget confrontations with Obama. Though he went along with the shutdown of 2013, careful not to anger conservatives ahead of his primary challenge, he later cut the deal that re-opened the government.

But being in the majority offers greater leverage than being in the minority, as a ruthless pragmatist like McConnell understands well. In the same interview with CNN he made clear he’s not actually backing off his proposition.

“But that doesn’t mean that Congress has an obligation to send appropriations bills to the president that are a blank check,” he said. “One of the powers of Congress is to direct spending, and we have an abusive bureaucracy across the board — it’s been particularly bad in Kentucky here with the EPA and the coal industry — that needs to have some direction from Congress. … So we’re going to have those kinds of votes next year if I’m the majority leader.”

In other words, McConnell will be determined to use his new powers as majority leader to fight Obama’s policies, such as his new rules on coal-fired power plants, which the Kentuckian has taken a keen interest in rolling back. Another possible target is Obama’s executive actions on immigration, such as the 2012 “deferred action” program which temporarily freed young people from the threat of deportation.

If Obama’s determination to protect these legacy moves runs up against a Republican Congress that’s determined to weaken them, a confrontation is highly likely, and a shutdown is plausible — even if McConnell never explicitly says he’ll shut down the government.

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