What Is Mitch McConnell Up To?

What happens in the Senate in the next month could be pivotal for Republicans. They’ll either chalk up some legislative victories or they won’t, but either way it could be the moment that defines the political parameters of the 2018 midterm election cycle. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell seems to realize this, as he’s already (gasp!) said he’s cutting the Senate’s August recess by a full two weeks ― meaning senators will only have three weeks to play in the sun this year, rather than the usual five. Snarkiness aside, though, you have to wonder what Mitch is really up to with this move. What mischief can a Republican Senate get up to, with an additional two weeks to cook things up?

At this point, both rumors and spin are flying fast and thick, so it’s hard to get a real picture of the possible outcomes. McConnell, as of this writing, is going to release two draft bills tomorrow ― the newly rewritten “repeal and replace Obamacare” bill, and Ted Cruz’s “let’s send the entire insurance industry into a death spiral” amendment. McConnell has promised both will be scored by the Congressional Budget Office, probably sometime early next week. Then McConnell will bring the two up for a vote by the end of the week. If his scheduling promises are kept, this will give the Senate an additional three weeks of work before their big summer break. If McConnell’s prediction gets delayed, then a vote may not even happen by the time they all leave in mid-August.

There’s reason for such skepticism, of course. McConnell hasn’t kept many scheduling promises to date on the health care bill. This week’s drafts were initially supposed to come out on Monday, for instance, and we were supposed to see C.B.O. numbers by the end of the week. That already slipped, obviously. If it slips again, it will likely push the vote to the last week in July. If it slips more than two weeks, then the entire time before vacation will be consumed by the health care debate, whether a vote is actually taken or not.

The speculation and rumors, at this point, are exactly the same as they were before the first draft of the Senate bill was even released to the public. McConnell, it was said, is sick and tired of dealing with an issue that seems to be going nowhere, because he is acutely aware that the more a monstrous contentious debate consumes the schedule, the less time there will be for everything else. So people are saying the same thing now they were saying back then: “McConnell will hold firm on voting up or down next week, because even if the bill fails it will still mean he can move on to all the other business they’ve been shirking in the meantime.” It also is a useful goad during all the behind-the-scenes arm-twisting currently taking place: “We are going to vote on this. You can be on the record repealing Obamacare, or saving Obamacare ― and then you’ll have to explain that to your voters next year.”

A big loss on health care would cement the impression that the GOP is the gang who couldn’t shoot straight. They’ve got the House, the Senate, the White House ― and they can’t even agree among themselves how to move forward. Donald Trump will be the first modern president not to get a single big legislative win before the August break of his first year in office. There will be plenty of blame to go around, and the Republican Party will enter a phase of finger-pointing within their own party, much to the delight of Democrats everywhere.

But McConnell knows that suffering such a legislative loss is best done quickly. The longer Senate Republicans bog down on the issue, the closer the election season gets. And nothing else gets done. The longer it drags on, the more this becomes true. So McConnell truly might be at his rope’s end, and he might force the vote next week even knowing full well he’s going to lose it. At least then he’ll be able to move on.

Assume McConnell gets his way, whether the health care bill passes or not. Either way, he puts the issue to rest by the end of next week. What will he use the remaining three weeks to do? The best outcome for Democrats would be for the bill to fail to pass, and then moderate Republicans work together with Democrats for a fix-it bill for Obamacare that shores up the marketplace and does not repeal anything. Efforts to reach such an agreement are already reportedly underway, although it’s probably too heavy a lift to expect the process could be completed by mid-August. They’d have to move incredibly fast, although if they managed to pull it off, then the Senate could adjourn knowing they won’t have to deal with health care again for the foreseeable future.

Barring unexpected bipartisanship breaking out, McConnell’s got a pretty full slate of other things on his agenda, some with built-in deadlines, some without. The two big looming deadlines are the debt ceiling and the annual federal budget. The debt ceiling is going to be hit at some point within the next few months. Congress has to raise it. The Treasury has already told Congress to do this before they leave for the August break, so this may be the biggest item on the “Must Do” list for McConnell. If he could clear the decks on the debt ceiling, then the Senate would have the whole month of September to get their budget together (which is theoretically due by the first of October). Passing a debt ceiling hike is never popular with the Republican base, however, so it remains to be seen whether McConnell really wants this fight right before the big break or not.

There are other big Republican agenda items without deadlines to work on, although the concept of a bipartisan effort on infrastructure spending is probably no longer one of them (nobody’s brought this idea up for months). But McConnell could use this miniature special session in the Senate to quickly hustle through what Republicans call “tax reform” and Democrats call “another deficit-exploding tax break for the one percent.” At one point, the GOP tax reform effort was going to be “revenue-neutral,” meaning the money the federal government takes in after the change would be exactly the same as if the change never happened. This would have meant lowering some taxes while raising (or creating) others. Republicans have been balking at the second part of that equation, however. Instead, they will quite likely focus only on what they all can agree upon ― big tax cuts for the wealthiest, and perhaps a few scraps for everyone else.

It actually wouldn’t be all that hard to get Republicans to rally behind a tax cut (it never is, after all). We’d be back to the era of “deficits don’t matter,” in other words, from that side of the aisle. And, like McConnell sees the health care vote, the less actual debate on the subject the better (for them, politically).

Mitch McConnell, at this point, will only admit that he’ll use the extra time he’s just created on the Senate calendar for “moving on the nominations” that must be confirmed, and for other minor matters. But I do have to wonder whether he’s got a real “Plan B” in his back pocket. Jam through the health care bill and watch it fail, but then pivot quickly to tax reform and hold a vote before the August break on a massive tax cut that Republicans are sure to love. If this second vote is successful, GOP senators will be able to use it to deflect any criticism over the health care failure. “Yeah, but we moved right along to tax cuts, which we then passed!” will be their standard line of deflection over the break, in other words.

This is less risky than it might appear. Since the Senate will have moved first, the House will have to draft their own tax-cutting bill. It will almost surely be different than whatever passes the Senate, meaning there will be ample time to fix anything they got wrong in their haste. The Senate passing their version of a bill won’t end the debate, not by a long shot. But it would conveniently give Republican senators a talking point that their counterparts in the House won’t have: “You say Congress isn’t doing much, but we just passed a big tax break!”

Perhaps this is what Mitch McConnell is up to. It would be a brilliant political maneuver, I have to admit. By this time next month, will everyone have largely forgotten about health care and be loudly arguing about how big to make the tax cuts? It would certainly change the subject in a major way for the reduced Senate August break, that’s for sure.


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