Mitch McConnell's talk of showdown with Obama: Anything out of the ordinary?

If Republicans take back the Senate, Sen. Mitch McConnell can try to load up must-pass spending bills with poison pills President Obama won't like. But that doesn't mean these measures become law or government shuts down.

Timothy D. Easley/AP
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky answers a question during a candidates forum at the Kentucky Farm Bureau Insurance headquarters on Wednesday in Louisville, Ky. The Senate Republican leader is also making headlines for recent comments on what he would do if Republicans win back the Senate in November midterm elections.

If Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky becomes the majority leader of a Republican Senate as a result of this fall’s elections, he plans to rein in President Obama by sending him must-pass spending bills that contain poison pills to reduce government. 

That's been House GOP strategy for years, but with Democrats in control of the Senate, the poison pills were pulled before the bills ever made it to the president's desk. But if Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada loses his majority, he also loses his capacity to set the agenda.

“We’re going to pass spending bills, and they’re going to have a lot of restrictions on the activities of the bureaucracy,” Senator McConnell told Politico reporter Manu Raju on his campaign bus this week. Mr. Obama will either have to swallow the pills or veto the bills that would keep the government open – perhaps giving him the blame for any “closed” signs that appear on federal offices.

Gulp. Is this more shutdown politics on the way?

More likely, it would simply be Congress using its power of the purse to influence the president, a tactic as old as the republic itself. A president can’t do a thing without Congress appropriating funds, and that’s a powerful tool in the country’s system of checks and balances. “I can’t think of a single president who hasn’t struggled with Congress over funding,” says Senate historian Donald Ritchie.

Both parties in Congress use this leverage, whether it’s exercised in the famous Hyde Amendment to ban federal funding for most abortions (championed by the late Republican congressman from Illinois, Henry Hyde) or in one from Democrats preventing President George W. Bush from allowing Mexican trucks onto US highways during his presidency.

Sometimes presidents push back and veto these “limitation riders.” The instigators may then cave under the pressure, or they may get some of what they want in tough bargaining with the president. 

“Limitation riders have a long history,” says John Pitney, a congressional expert and professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. “What’s unusual here is that it’s not just a focus on one particular issue or one particular line of spending, but, as McConnell indicates, an overall strategy.”

Mr. Pitney and other political observers suggest McConnell’s comments are meant to win conservative voters and satisfy the right wing of his party on the eve of midterm elections, including a close race to hold his own Senate seat – as well as telegraph his opening bargaining position to the president.

Indeed, saying he will send the president such riders – and actually doing so – are two different things. Any senator can filibuster a spending bill and any restricting add-ons, including the man whom McConnell would displace as majority leader, Senator Reid.

One tactic to avoid having to scrounge for 60 votes to overcome a filibuster would be to use a budget procedure known as “reconciliation,” which can pass with a simple majority. That procedure was central to getting Obamacare through Congress in 2010. Some Republicans favor using reconciliation; McConnell was noncommittal in his Politico interview: “We’ll see.”

Even if he were able to get poison-pill spending bills to the president, there’s no guarantee that McConnell would win a veto fight, says Patrick Griffin, former legislative liaison for President Clinton. Mr. Griffin was in the middle of the budget war that led to two government shutdowns in late 1995 and early 1996, after Republicans took back the House for the first time in 40 years.

That clash was over two sharply opposing worldviews. Then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia favored cuts to education, the environment, Medicare, and Medicaid. Those areas were close to the heart of Mr. Clinton.

In the end, a compromise was reached to balance the budget, but the president was able to protect his priorities.

Clinton came out a winner by portraying himself as the public’s protector from a new, overreaching Republican majority, while Mr. Gingrich got roundly blamed for the shutdowns, Griffin says.

If congressional Republicans send Obama “a very, very radical set of cuts in a budget bill and the president says, ‘I’m going to veto this, it’s gone too far,’ that’s a tough debate to think they’ll win on their own,” Griffin says. “The veto could be a plus for the president.”

Despite all the saber rattling, GOP leaders remember that shutdowns are not a winning tactic with the overall American public. Neither do they deliver the policy wins that legislators want. Last year’s partial government shutdown, for instance, did not succeed in killing Obamacare. Rather, it harmed Republican standing in public opinion polls.

This is not lost on McConnell. On Wednesday, after the Politico interview appeared, he was already toning down his comments.

“I'm the guy who gets us out of government shutdowns," he told reporters. "I don't believe in government shutdowns, but I don't believe in Congress giving the president a blank check."

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