The lawmaker with the most influence over President Joe Biden’s agenda right now isn’t a member of his party.
Biden’s Democrats technically control Washington: Chuck Schumer runs the Senate and Nancy Pelosi is speaker. But the president’s biggest priorities, from immigration to infrastructure, at the moment revolve around Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s hold over his 50-member conference.
That’s an unwelcome sight for Democrats who just spent a decade without full control of Washington.
“He believes that he should have a veto over anything that the president of the United States and the majority elected to Congress want to do. It’s wrong,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), an advocate for killing the filibuster to hobble McConnell. “This was his playbook when Obama was president, and he’s dusted it off again.”
Some things have changed for McConnell since he spent most of former President Barack Obama’s presidency as a comparably effective minority leader. He has former President Donald Trump hanging over him, playing kingmaker and lobbing insults as McConnell tries to win back the majority. And Democrats are more aware of McConnell’s tactics after living through them for Obama’s two terms.
But for now, the Kentucky Republican is nonetheless leveraging the existence of the filibuster into remarkable power over legislation. He’s doing it through a subtle but unmistakable bet: that the Senate’s 60-vote threshold for most bills is here to stay, and so too is his ability to shape or derail Democrats’ priorities.
Take the proposed commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. McConnell said Trump is “practically and morally responsible” for the siege on Congress, but he has no interest in the changes requested by Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) to change the commission’s staffing and quicken its pace.
McConnell warned Republicans at a closed-door meeting on Tuesday that regardless of tweaks to the bill that approving the commission could hurt the party’s midterm election message, according to attendees. He left that room and promptly told reporters that while Democrats want to talk about Trump, voters who’ll determine control of Congress next fall “ought to focus on what this administration is doing to the country.”
“It’s a purely political exercise that adds nothing to the sum total of information” known about the insurrection, McConnell told reporters Tuesday of the Jan. 6 commission.
Romney and Collins, along with several others, are still pressing alterations to the commission measure ahead of a make-or-break vote that’s expected as soon as this week. With McConnell actively moving to block the bill, though, it’s hard to see the Utahn and Mainer bringing along the 10 Republicans they’ll need to cross their leader.
Some in McConnell’s conference are privately antsy over blocking the commission. But Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) responded to those concerns during Tuesday’s meeting, undergirding McConnell’s point that the commission as a concept is the problem, not the way the bill is written.
“The discussion was on the House-passed bill. And I’m against it,” Tillis said afterward.
And McConnell’s Republicans can block that bill without any apparent threat that the legislative filibuster could be scrapped to dilute his power. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said he wouldn’t change his defense of the filibuster regardless of a McConnell-led blockade, arguing it took a year to approve the Sept. 11 commission that inspired the current Jan. 6 proposal.
“That is extremely frustrating and disturbing. I know he’s an institutionalist. I would like to think he loves this institution,” Manchin said Tuesday. “There’s a time when you rise above. And I’m hoping this would be the time he would do that. What I’m hearing is, he hasn’t.”
Similarly, while McConnell has delegated negotiations on major Biden goals like police reform to his lieutenants, Democrats doubt those members can cut deals without McConnell’s say-so. McConnell also warned this week against ending debate on Schumer’s China-focused competitiveness bill without more amendment votes; the Senate set up six amendment votes a day later.
It’s a recognition, allies say, that even as more Democrats clamor to kill the filibuster, McConnell’s still buying stock in the Senate’s supermajority requirement. Biden’s party has already unilaterally approved $1.9 trillion in new coronavirus spending rather than haggling with Republicans, and they might do it again on infrastructure.
But Senate Republicans are prepared to stand in the way of that party-line push as often as possible.
“What it reflects is that Democrats did not get a mandate. But they’re interpreting this as a mandate,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a close ally of the minority leader.
Democrats fear something bigger is at play for McConnell, that he’s executing a cynical political strategy reminiscent of his Beltway-infamous goal to limit Obama to one term. Earlier this month, McConnell said of his conference: “One hundred percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration.”
Several centrist Democrats said they get along with McConnell fine. But that statement was “inappropriate, and if that’s the way he truly believes, I think that’s why this place is so screwed up,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.).
“I’m from the old school, I guess. Once the election is over, you want to work with everybody to try to make the country more successful. To try and work against a president so you can do better the next election is not the way I would approach it,” said Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.).
When asked about McConnell’s stance, Romney argued that you have to “look at the entire context.”
“If we’re talking about policies that we believe are misguided and will be harmful to the country, then yeah, you have to oppose those policies. If there are things that are mutual agreement, those are things you support,” Romney said, adding that he didn’t interpret McConnell’s words “as: ‘We’re going to block everything from the Biden administration.’”
McConnell’s outsize sway as minority leader could be fleeting. Senate Democrats are preparing a unilateral approach to physical infrastructure, climate change and the care economy if Republicans deadlock with Biden. Democrats can unilaterally confirm Biden’s nominees as long as they have the majority. Schumer still controls the floor, and the authority it gives him to force tough votes on McConnell’s conference.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) warned those types of votes are just around the pike for the GOP, as Democrats grow more impatient about confronting the issues they’ve been talking about for 10 years while their fragile majority still holds.
“The longer we wait, the more anxious we become,” Durbin said.
Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.