Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Thursday appeared to allay fears of a government shutdown when he said that a high-stakes confrontation with President Barack Obama over immigration was off the table. However a closer read, with last year's fight over the Affordable Care Act in mind, suggests anything but.
The Kentucky Republican, fresh off a sweeping victory at the polls, addressed reporters on Capitol Hill and promised his party would do the responsible thing even if Obama proceeds with a planned executive action on immigration.
"We will not be shutting down the government or threatening to default on the debt," McConnell said.
Conservative lawmakers have been urging leadership to do everything possible to block an executive action, which would reportedly grant deportation relief to almost 5 million undocumented immigrants. One such procedural tactic, supported by more than 50 House Republicans, would be to attach a rider on a bill to fund the government that would withhold money intended to implement the measure. Such a course of action could set up a showdown with the White House and raise the prospect of another government shutdown.
At first blush, McConnell's latest comments seem to forgo that strategy. But it's worth revisiting history, such as the fall of 2013, when Republicans forced a shutdown by demanding to defund the Affordable Care Act. That quixotic effort, led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), ultimately failed and severely hurt the party's perception in the months that followed.
In the ensuing aftermath, Cruz repeatedly rejected the notion that he was to blame for the shutdown and instead blamed Democrats for their unwillingness to gut their biggest legislative accomplishment in decades.
"I think it was absolutely a mistake for President Obama and Harry Reid to force a government shutdown," he said.
McConnell followed along. In a radio ad denouncing the "disgrace" that was the shutdown, McConnell blamed Democrats for refusing to compromise. "Republicans continue to offer solutions to reach a compromise and I've worked to pass a short-term bill to keep the government open while we talk, but President Obama and Harry Reid have refused to negotiate. It's a shame because we owe it to you to negotiate a solution and restore your faith in Washington," he said.
It's unlikely that GOP leaders want another costly fight, especially over an issue that could alienate Hispanic voters ahead of the coming 2016 presidential election. But McConnell's latest comments -- that "we" won't be the party to shut the government down -- give him ample room to blame Democrats should conservatives once again force him down the same path.
Watch McConnell's remarks above.