After Shutdown Missteps, McConnell’s Leadership on Unsure Footing
Senate Republicans went against the wishes of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell over Ukraine funding in the shutdown showdown.
Kevin McCarthy, the former Speaker of the House, is the biggest loser in what has transpired on Capitol Hill over the last week—for now. McCarthy has said he won’t be making a play to regain the Speaker’s gavel, but how history will record McCarthy’s tenure in, and sudden eviction from, the Speaker’s office is yet to be determined. Much depends on who the House chooses to fill McCarthy’s shoes, and whether that new Speaker can deliver the proper appropriations bills and avoid another continuing resolution that would likely result in another holiday omnibus. If the next speaker fails to accomplish that goal, the brief chapter of American history in which McCarthy was speaker will be written with melancholic and wistful tones rather than tragic or acerbic. In the end, the biggest loser could be Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Amidst the raucousness of the more junior chamber, McConnell’s brutal defeat by his own conference in the lead-up to the September 30 deadline to avoid a government shutdown has largely flown under the radar. Nevertheless, what occurred in the Senate’s Republican conference over the past few weeks could spell the beginning of the end for the longest serving leader of a party the upper chamber has ever seen.
After Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the leading Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Appropriations Chair Senator Patty Murray first failed to pass single-subject appropriations bills and then failed to pass minibus packages that would have bundled appropriations bills together, Appropriations leadership and Senate leadership went forward with a continuing resolution.
The Senate’s efforts to pass a budget and the necessary appropriations bills, Senator Rick Scott of Florida told The American Conservative via phone, was knee-capped by senate leadership, particularly Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, simply not “bringing it up.” Leadership, Scott said, “waited until halfway through halfway through September before we even brought to the floor any of this. It makes it pretty hard to get something done when you don't even start working on it.” This goes for not just the weeks prior to the shutdown, but for the months prior, dating back to the spring when most of the work on appropriations should be done. “We should have been doing the budget starting in the spring and try to get it all done by the middle of June,” Scott, who previously challenged McConnell for the Senate GOP’s top spot, argued.
As McConnell, Schumer, and the others negotiated the terms of the continuing resolution, the Senate Minority Leader met with members of the Biden administration, notably National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, regarding provisions to provide further funding for Ukraine. The Biden White House had been asking for $24 billion for Ukraine over the course of three months, but McConnell reportedly informed the administration that it wouldn't be possible to pass in a continuing resolution.
To support Ukraine’s war effort, which McConnell sees as tied more closely to his legacy than, say, the border, the Kentucky Republican believed the continuing resolution should include language that moved already appropriated money to further funding for Ukraine. The Biden administration was insistent, however; Blinken told McConnell to get funding for Ukraine, and McConnell obliged. It is rumored on Capitol Hill that in the process of drafting the continuing resolution among Senate leadership that it was McConnell, not Schumer, who was most insistent on providing funding for Ukraine. Schumer, likely wanting to avoid a shutdown and knowing the situation in the House, was seemingly prepared to drop funding for Ukraine in the continuing resolution in exchange for fewer spending cuts on domestic programs or protection for disaster relief funding.
The contents of the Senate’s continuing resolution, which would fund the government through November 17 and provide approximately $6 billion for both Ukraine and disaster relief, respectively, became public on September 26. Senators received the 79-page bill, a difficult piece of legislation to read and decipher because of various appropriations pots and a bevy of cross references, less than an hour before Senate leadership wanted to vote on the motion to proceed.
“Most Americans would be shocked to learn that the majority of spending legislation passed by Congress is seldom read, debated, or even voted upon in person," Senator Mike Lee of Utah told TAC about the rush to vote on the continuing resolution via email. "To prevent any attempts at reforming this system, funding bills and debt limit fights are always pushed as critical emergencies, so that any legislator who tries to hit the brakes can be portrayed as selfishly shutting down America’s government. The half-hour we were given to read the C.R. was many things—insulting, unreasonable, unworkable—but sadly not surprising.”
“People just give us things and then are surprised if we don't like it,” Scott explained. “What they do is they'll drop a big bill on us so we have no opportunity to review it and expect a few hours later that we vote on it. And I think the expectation is that we're little robots and we're just going to go along with whatever anybody proposes.”
Ultimately, the Senate voted 77 to 19 in favor of proceeding on the Senate’s continuing resolution.
“Days before the end of the fiscal year, the Senate leadership threatened the American people with a choice: fund our proxy war against a nuclear power in Ukraine or the government will shut down,” Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky told TAC in a written statement. “I will not allow the government to be held hostage and made clear on the Senate floor that I would oppose any effort to expedite the passage of any measure that contained new Ukraine funding. That objection bought enough time for my colleagues to realize they are out of touch with a war weary nation that does not want to become involved in another endless quagmire abroad.”
Scott, upon seeing the contents of the continuing resolution and the funding for Ukraine it provided, circumvented McConnell and told McCarthy that the Senate could likely get behind a continuing resolution that excluded Ukraine funding but protected disaster relief funding—intel that McCarthy ultimately acted on.
“Well, what I've done is talk to people so I have a very good working relationship with a lot of people in the House,” Scott said of his actions. “I've tried to build a very good working relationship with Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise and all the leadership over there and just asking, 'what can you get done?'” In his meeting with McCarthy, Scott claimed, “I told [McCarthy] what I thought could get done in the Senate, and I'd always tried to be clear that I wanted to get something accomplished here. I didn’t want a government shutdown. Nobody I was talking to wanted a government shutdown.”
McCarthy “was very clear he could not get a C.R. done with spending for Ukraine. He was very clear that that was not doable. So I was very clear to my colleagues that was a non-starter, and I hope that we would all do everything we can to make it a win," said Scott.
Republican Senators had mixed emotions about the provisions of the continuing resolution that was coming out of the House. Some thought that modest spending cuts were better than none, while others wanted to table fights over spending cuts. Some Senators were enthused by the inclusion of some provisions of H.R. 2, the Secure the Border Act, while others wanted even more border security guarantees. And, predictably, Senate Republicans were starkly divided when it came to funding for Ukraine. When the House’s continuing resolution failed on Friday afternoon, however, the Senate had to start rethinking the product they might be presented with.
Late Friday, McCarthy filed a new continuing resolution that, like the Senate continuing resolution, would fund the government through November 17 and notified the House Republican conference of his actions the following morning. Meanwhile, in the Senate, McConnell made a last ditch effort to vie for the continuing resolution he’d negotiated with Schumer with emphasis on funding for Ukraine.
On Saturday morning, the Senate Republican conference had a luncheon where they’d discuss their final play to avert a government shutdown. Sources who were present tell TAC that McConnell was approximately 30 minutes late to the meeting. After getting settled in, McConnell eventually rose to begin the meeting, and proceeded to give a lack-luster speech about the virtues of the Senate’s version of the continuing resolution. McConnell repeatedly told members that Republican Senators simply have to go along with the McConnell-Schumer continuing resolution and the funding that it provides Ukraine because, if not, the government will shut down.
When TAC asked Senator Mike Lee of Utah about McConnell’s remarks, Lee told TAC that “one of my usually mild-mannered colleagues blurted out 'are shutdowns as unpopular as Ukraine funding?' McConnell didn’t answer. He had another moderate Senator take the podium to reiterate the argument, but his message was not well received, and was not echoed by any other member.” That moderate member Lee references, TAC was told, was Collins.
Other members of the conference, however, sent a powerful message to McConnell: They would not be threatened with a shutdown into voting for Ukraine. Rather, Senate Republicans refused to move forward on the Senate’s continuing resolution, thereby empowering the Republican-controlled House to exact as many concessions as possible out of Schumer and Biden, which McCarthy did with little success, and, in an ironic twist, actually keep the government open because the McConnell-Schumer, Ukraine-funding continuing resolution was clearly and obviously dead on arrival in the House of Representatives.
When it was Lee’s turn to speak, the Utah Senator told TAC that he told his Republican colleagues "we need to give the House the chance to make the next move. We know that House and Senate Dems are working together—and they want Schumer-McConnell to pass. That should tell us something.”
“If we provide enough votes to achieve cloture today, we will be working against the House GOP,” Lee told TAC, paraphrasing his previous remarks. “Senate Republicans need to take down cloture on this bill, which offends so many of our voters and our allies in the House. The bill would provide at least $6.15 billion (likely more) in additional Ukraine funding—on which Democrats are united but Republicans are deeply divided. Meanwhile, it contains nothing to advance priorities that unite Republicans—nothing to secure the border, cut spending, or tame the out-of-control executive branch.”
In Scott’s remarks and conversations at the Saturday luncheon, the Florida Senator told TAC that he “tried to be clear with my colleagues where they were in the House,” and that “they needed Republicans in the Senate to make sure they didn't pass the existing Schumer-McConnell CR that had the Ukraine funding.”
Doing so “would have ended up shutting down the government and that would have been dead on arrival in the House,” Scott said that he explained in the meeting. The best way to assist the House was “if we all stuck together and didn't get cloture to the Schumer McConnell C.R. with Ukraine aid.”
“So we stood up and didn't give them cloture on the Schumer-McConnell C.R. with Ukraine aid,” Scott said. “I think all of us agreed we shouldn't be doing Ukraine funding as part of a spending bill in our C.R. It should be its own separate bill, and we got to have a robust conversation about what we were doing,” Scott told TAC.
In the end, “Senate leadership tried to get Ukraine jammed into the CR and they just got bucked. McConnell negotiated it in the CR. And he couldn’t carry the caucus,” Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri said after the Saturday luncheon, according to POLITICO. “That’s a big deal.”
For the first time in a long time, it appears McConnell’s iron grip on power over the Republican conference in the senate is loosening. Senators in the Republican conference are feeling increasingly emboldened to behave like the senior legislators their title bestows upon them, and not be an army of “little robots” for McConnell, to borrow a term from Scott.
“The tide is turning,” Paul told TAC. “Although we managed to remove the $6 billion for Ukraine from the continuing resolution last week, the uniparty will remain adamant that the American taxpayers bankroll their war. I will continue doing everything in my power to ensure we put the security and prosperity of the American people first.”
“For the first time in years, we’re seeing a critical mass of the Republican conference rejecting last-minute, panic-driven-by-design funding bills; we are instead insisting upon actual debate and advancing conservative policies as we were elected to do,” Lee claimed. "We might be witnessing the “beginning of the end” of business as usual in the Senate.”
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Unfortunately, this increase in independence and confidence for the Republican caucus coincides with a series of troubling health episodes for the 81-year-old minority leader. TAC asked Scott whether he believes McConnell’s failing health has had a role in the conference’s willingness to deny his wishes in the shutdown showdown. “It didn’t in mine,” Scott replied.
But Scott hopes that things continue to change as more members feel empowered. “Everybody needs to be heard, we need to do everything we can to help everybody be a successful Republican senator, and we need to build a relationship with our House partners and act in concert with our House partners,” Scott told TAC. “When you look at the fact that McConnell and some other Republicans have voted with the Democrats on all these prior big spending bills, you wonder if they care about what we think,” he added.
As the leaves turn and begin to fall, one Republican leader has, too. By winter, will another prone to freezing have followed suit?