GOP leader McConnell returns as Senate ‘grim reaper’

WASHINGTON (thehill): Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) is keeping his Republican conference largely unified, and it’s creating major obstacles to President Biden’s legislative agenda.

McConnell has maintained the loyalty of his fellow GOP senators despite repeated attacks by former President Trump, who has called on Senate Republicans to oust him as their leader.

And it was McConnell’s opposition to a House-passed bill establishing a bipartisan Jan. 6 commission that snuffed out the legislation in the Senate on Friday.

One GOP senator said the measure would have garnered enough votes to pass the chamber and eventually land on Biden’s desk had McConnell not gotten involved.

“The vote on the commission would have had 60 votes in the absence of McConnell’s position,” said the Republican lawmaker who ended up voting against the bill.

The senator said the vote outcome was a good example of just how influential McConnell is in the conference.

McConnell warned GOP senators at a Republican lunch earlier this week that creating a Jan. 6 commission could create a political distraction and undermine the party’s political message heading into the 2022 midterm elections, when they hope to win back both the House and Senate.

He blasted the House-passed bill on Wednesday morning as “slanted and unbalanced,” sending a strong message to GOP colleagues.

That caused any potential Republican support for the measure to quickly evaporate, the GOP senator said.

“Then it becomes, ‘It’s not going to pass and McConnell cares so much,’ and it starts weighing on Republican senators,” the lawmaker said. “The commission is a pretty good example of his effectiveness.”

Senators voted 54-35 on the House-passed bill, falling short of the 10 GOP votes needed to get it over a procedural hurdle.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), an influential centrist who has been pushing fellow Democrats all year to work with Republicans, on Friday said McConnell was the biggest factor in the demise of the Jan. 6 bill.

“There was an awful lot of Republicans that would have supported it if it wasn’t for his personal intervention,” Manchin told reporters.

Manchin said he tried to personally convince McConnell to support the commission.

 “He just said, ‘Joe, we disagree,’” Manchin recounted of his conversation with the leader. “I said, ‘Sir, I respect that. We disagree but how can you disagree on killing the country?’ He looks at it strictly as a politics. He thinks the Democrats are going to play politics.”

Friday’s vote — the first successful GOP filibuster of the 117th Congress — in many ways marked the return of McConnell as the Senate’s main roadblock to legislation passed by the House.

McConnell pledged before the 2020 election, in which he won a seventh term, that he would be the “grim reaper” of liberal policy proposals.

“If I’m still the majority leader in the Senate, think of me as the Grim Reaper. None of that stuff is going to pass,” he told voters in Owensboro, Ky.

While McConnell is no longer majority leader, his mission is largely the same.

His tactics are creating growing frustration among Senate Democrats who are warning they are getting ready to cut Republicans out of the legislative process altogether and attempt to pass as much of Biden’s agenda as possible through budget reconciliation, allowing them to bypass GOP filibusters.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) vented his frustration Friday after a group of Senate Republicans used procedural tactics to delay a final vote on a bill designed to improve U.S. competitiveness with China and other countries.

Even though the legislation has broad bipartisan support, McConnell did little to rein in conservative colleagues such as Sens. Ron Johnson (Wis.) and Rand Paul (Ky.) from using dilatory tactics to postpone a final vote on the legislation until after the weeklong Memorial Day recess.

“McConnell’s nowhere on the floor, nowhere around to try to prevent that from happening,” Schumer grumbled after he was forced to postpone action on the Innovation and Competition Act.

Other Democrats started steaming with anger when asked about McConnell’s tactics.

“When are you guys going to believe him when he says he wants Biden to fail?” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), venting his vexation over the GOP leader’s recent moves. “He wants Biden to fail. Everything he does, he wants Biden to fail.”

“He does a head fake on maybe acting like they want to compromise on something but he never follows up with it. It’s pretty clear,” Brown added.

Many Democratic senators think McConnell revealed his true intentions when he told reporters in Kentucky this month: “One hundred percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration.”

Democrats say he’s reprising the role he played during former President Obama’s time in office, when McConnell pulled out all the stops to slow or even block his agenda.

“It’s the same role he played under President Obama. It’s a negative role: Do your best to stop the Senate from doing anything that could be taken as a credit for Democrats in the next election. He stymies and stifles every bipartisan effort, it’s a shame,” said Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.).

But GOP senators say McConnell is showing effective leadership.

“Mitch reflects the views of his conference,” said Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.). “He doesn’t always get involved in expressing opinions. It just makes him a strong leader.”

“He’s very admired for his strategic ability. He does play the long game. He understands the different ramifications of each move that you take and where that’s going to lead, and his ability is recognized,” she added.

McConnell told GOP colleagues at a lunch meeting Wednesday that they should consider holding up Schumer’s Innovation and Competition Act, a bill designed to improve U.S. competitiveness with China, unless Schumer backed down on letting a package of business-favored trade provisions get a vote.

The bipartisan legislation nearly fell apart Thursday when Republicans refrained from voting on a motion to end debate on the substitute amendment that Schumer offered to significantly expand the legislation.

GOP senators only agreed to let the measure advance after Schumer said he would allow a vote on an amendment sponsored by Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) to reauthorize the trade preferences and tariff relief that are high priorities of the business community.

“Sen. McConnell stood up and he expressed concern about the amendment process and said perhaps we don’t give them cloture to show we’re really serious,” said a Senate Republican who attended Wednesday’s meeting.

Reporters standing outside could hear rounds of applause through the door.

A Senate Republican aide later explained McConnell’s calculus: “You’ve got to show your strength or you don’t have leverage.”

The Crapo amendment ended up passing with 91 votes, handing a major win to businesses that have been clamoring for tariff relief.

McConnell has also kept his entire conference unified in opposing any changes to the party’s prized 2017 tax cut law amid efforts to seek a bipartisan deal on an infrastructure package. The Trump-era legislation slashed the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent, and Democrats are now seeking a 28 percent rate to finance infrastructure spending.

A group of Senate Republican negotiators who are trying to work out an infrastructure deal with the White House emphasized in a Thursday memo to that they would not increase corporate taxes.

“We made clear as a conference we will not revisit the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that provided the fastest economic growth in years, prior to the COVID-19 crisis,” they wrote, echoing a talking point that McConnell has been using for weeks.

The GOP resistance to raising taxes is one of the biggest obstacles to getting a bipartisan deal, meaning Schumer will likely have to use budget reconciliation in hopes of passing an infrastructure bill with only Democratic votes.

McConnell has also led the battle to quash a sweeping election reform bill — the For the People Act — that Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have made a top legislative priority.

McConnell has dismissed the legislation as “an implementation nightmare,” “an invitation to total chaos” and a “massive political takeover bill.”

And in a rare move, he testified this month before the Senate Rules Committee against the legislation, going head-to-head with Schumer who testified in its favor.

All GOP senators on the committee voted against the measure. Schumer said Friday that he will force a vote on the bill in late June.