Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) is facing a tough 2023.
He’s seen as the adult in the room, the one congressional Republican who might stand in the way of a default on the U.S. debt or a government shutdown in a battle between the White House and an emboldened House GOP led by Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
Yet he’s also public enemy No. 1 — or at least high on that list — for former President Trump, who holds enormous sway over McCarthy and the House GOP.
Trump delights in taking aim at McConnell, and at stirring up trouble for the veteran Senate GOP deal-maker, who also must deal with ambitious conservatives in his own Senate caucus who sometimes posture against him.
Just this week, the former president has criticized McConnell’s handling of last year’s omnibus spending bill, which has also been criticized by House conservatives who held up McCarthy’s Speakership until he finally won last week on the 15th ballot.
It all points toward a tumultuous 2023 for Republicans in general, with McConnell at the center of the GOP’s storm.
McConnell will essentially be charged with trying to set up his party for a comeback in the Senate elections of 2024, while dealing with hard-liners in the House, at Mar-a-Lago and even in his own Senate caucus.
Former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), a onetime adviser to McConnell’s leadership team, said McConnell is going to have to emerge as the point person in any negotiations with Democrats on preventing a shutdown or raising the debt ceiling, just as he did in 2011 when he negotiated a deal with then-Vice President Biden to reduce spending in exchange for raising the debt limit.
“McConnell becomes the responsible individual on the Republican side who’s going to make the government work,” Gregg said. “The debt ceiling is just one element of that but it’s a big one.”
McCarthy faces serious doubts about his ability to cut a deal with Democrats as anything that falls short of the demands of a small group of House conservatives could provoke a snap election on McCarthy’s future as Speaker.
That almost certainly leaves the responsibility to McConnell, who will have to consider it — and the best path for Republicans to win back the Senate in 2024 — as he deals with Trump and what’s expected to be a weak Speaker in McCarthy.
People who know McConnell well predict he’ll want to avoid any political disasters.
“He’s never been the one to believe that defaults or shutdowns are the proper way to run a country,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist who has advised McConnell’s past campaigns.
“So my suspicion is that will be his attitude in the future — that we have to try score policy wins when we can but defaulting on our debt or shutting down the government is not in our best interests or the country’s best interests,” he said.
That said, Jennings and other GOP strategists suggest the challenges McConnell faces in this political climate may exceed past skirmishes over shutdowns and debt ceilings.
“The question is are incremental victories going to be acceptable to people who want confrontation or bust,” Jennings said, referring to restive House conservatives, such as Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) who told reporters last week that McCarthy has to be willing to shut down the government to get a good enough deal on raising the debt limit.
Jennings argued that McConnell got “a pretty good deal” in last month’s omnibus spending package, which included a 9.7 percent increase for defense program and only a 5.5 percent increase for nondefense, non-veterans-related discretionary programs.
Even so, McConnell was attacked by conservatives in his own conference for agreeing to the deal, as well as disgruntled House conservatives and Trump.
“One thing Republicans should know is every time something has to be done with votes from the other party you’re going to end up giving something and you’re not going to like it,” Jennings said. “I do think he’s dealing with some people who think shutdowns and defaults are perfectly acceptable tactics … It’s a difficult position.”
William Hoagland, a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center and the former budget and appropriations director for former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), said Congress is headed for a replay of the 2011 debt-limit standoff, which McConnell helped resolve.
“I keep looking back to the 112th Congress … and I have a feeling we have a similar situation being established here,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to default.”
But he thinks that Democrats are going to have to agree to fiscal reforms, even though they have refused to negotiate over raising the debt-limit since 2011. The key factor this year is that Biden is up for reelection and doesn’t want to risk a default that could wreck the economy.
McCarthy faces doubts about his ability to negotiate because of how hard he had to scramble to secure his Speakership — and what he gave up. A single Republican can now force a vote on whether McCarthy should remain Speaker.
Darrell West, the director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, argued the concessions McCarthy offered will make it “hard for him to make any concessions to Democrats without basically losing his job.”
To mollify conservative critics, McCarthy pledged to attach spending cuts to debt-limit legislation and to cut discretionary spending to fiscal 2022 levels — setting up a likely stalemate with Senate Democrats later this year.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, warned that McCarthy’s promises are essentially “guaranteeing a shutdown.”
McCarthy is already opening the door to reforming Social Security and Medicare to curb the projected growth in the federal deficit, something that’s getting strong pushback from Democrats.
Republican strategists warn that picking a fight with Democrats over cuts to Social Security and Medicare is a dangerous strategy heading into the 2024 presidential election.
Senate Democrats repeatedly attacked GOP candidates ahead of the 2022 midterm election over National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott’s (Fla.) 11-point plan to sunset all federal legislation after five years, which Democrats said would end Social Security and Medicare.
Scott argued that popular programs such as Social Security and Medicare would be renewed by Congress.
The GOP faces a political map in the 2024 battle that gives them real optimism about taking back the Senate in 2024.
But McConnell will need to manage legislative goals — and possibly the demands of House conservatives — to set his party up for a 2024 win.
“I think we learned from politically from Rick Scott in the last cycle that campaigning on entitlement cuts is not a really a great idea for Republicans. And so I’d be surprised if that were on the menu,” Jennings said.