Calling McConnell's Bluff
by Deacon Blues
"There is only one Democrat who counts, the president. . . . Democrats in Congress will support whatever he agrees to do."
--Mitch McConnell, yesterday, making a false assertion
In all the reporting yesterday on the conversations between congressional GOP leaders and the president, the one comment I found interesting was the observation by Mitch McConnell that congressional Democrats were irrelevant, and that all that mattered was what Obama agrees to do. McConnell clearly assumes that the Senate Democratic caucus will follow Obama’s lead in lockstep, and will agree to support whatever deals Obama cuts with McConnell, or at least enough Senate Democrats will go along with whatever deal Obama and McConnell agree do to get past a filibuster. But is such an assumption warranted?
In a worst-case scenario, the GOP will rack up 55 seats in the next session, meaning that McConnell would need to pull five Democrats or four Democrats and Maine’s Angus King along with Obama and McConnell (I’m assuming that Bernie Sanders will never agree to anything that Obama and McConnell cook up that harms consumers or the middle class). And it’s not at all clear that King would go along with whatever deals McConnell and Obama cook up. What could those deals be? MSNBC’s Michael Steele posited last night that chances for collaboration in the new Congress between the GOP and the White House would be dictated by immediate action on two issues: the Keystone pipeline and immigration reform. Steele believes that any chance for bipartisanship next year on tax reform, trade deals, and balancing the budget are left hanging until it can be proved that Obama and McConnell can strike deals on Keystone and immigration. But note the choice of issues here.
Clearly, getting the Keystone pipeline through is a big deal to the GOP, and it’s just as clear that the Senate GOP wants to address immigration reform well in advance of facing voters again in 2016. But the Senate GOP also wants to prevent Obama from taking unilateral action on easing deportations as he threatened to do again yesterday. If Steele’s information is correct, and if Obama suddenly became a good negotiator, the White House could leverage McConnell early next session to reintroduce and pass the 2013 bill that passed the Senate in exchange for Obama not acting unilaterally on deportations. As for Keystone, and again if Obama was a good negotiator, he could leverage approval of the pipeline with energy-related goodies the Democrats want. Which takes us to the rest of the agenda.
The GOP plans to use its new majorities in both houses to now ram through tax reform and deficit reduction through the budget reconciliation process and not expose both to possible Senate Democratic filibusters. If successful, John Boehner and McConnell would be sending Obama budget bills with the poison pills of entitlement cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamps coupled with lower tax rates for corporations and the wealthy. They openly believe they can logroll Obama into signing these, or threaten blaming him for budget-related shutdowns. But is it a credible assumption by McConnell that he can pry away a few Senate Democrats to vote for such deals (the fig leaf of bipartisanship) with the threat that the GOP will hammer those incumbents in 2016? Maybe, maybe not.
The political landscape for 2016 is much more favorable to Democrats than the GOP, and it will be the GOP that may lose numerous seats that year. Specifically, these are the Senate Democrats up for re-election in 2016. How many of them could McConnell push to vote for cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamps, or risk being threatened in their states by the GOP?
Michael Bennet (Colorado)
Richard Blumenthal (Connecticut)
Barbara Boxer (California)
Patrick Leahy (Vermont)
Barbara Mikulski (Maryland)
Patty Murray (Washington)
Harry Reid (Nevada)
Charles Schumer (New York)
Ron Wyden (Oregon)
That’s right, virtually none of them except Reid and Bennet. Reid isn’t going to do it, and McConnell’s only hope would be to get someone like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin to go along, which he won’t do. So the truth is that McConnell’s boast that the Senate Democratic caucus is irrelevant if Obama agrees to a deal is itself laughable, because the Senate Democratic caucus could stand together on any bad deal cut by the White House on “entitlement reform” and simply reject their own president and save their own asses for 2016 and beyond.
As for the Senate Republicans up for 2016, they have almost two-dozen incumbents before the voters that year, including more than a half-dozen where a vote against seniors and Medicare may prove lethal.
So the takeaway here is that McConnell may already be overplaying his hand, and Senate Democrats should stick together and get as much from the GOP in these early test cases on Keystone and immigration as they can. But remember, the GOP needs action on immigration reform for 2016 more than the Democrats do, who only have to demonstrate pressure upon the GOP to get the 2013 bill into the House while berating them for going after brown people. It’s useful for Democrats to demonstrate a willingness to work with the GOP on these early issues, and then dig in and wait for the GOP internal fissures to emerge inside each caucus between the Tea Partiers and the rest, and between the 2016 candidates and the rest. But when it comes to going along with any White House grand bargain that gives Obama his legacy moment at the expense of entitlement “reform” so that the 1% can get away with it again, the Senate Democratic caucus should surprise both Obama and McConnell and just say “do it without our votes."