Can McConnell Regain Leadership of Congress?
Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
In less than a month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has affirmed to the American people and the President that the Congress is a co-equal branch of government. Pelosi has made it very clear that neither she nor the House of Representatives will roll over when it comes to governing the country. While some of this activity was to be expected as the Democrats captured the House in November, Pelosi has challenged President Trump as no sitting Member—who has political leadership power– has done for two years. Pelosi has asserted the power of the office and demonstrated to Trump that political leadership comes in different packages. She has demonstrated not only political savvy but knowledge of history and the rules of House. Her forceful actions have displeased the President to no end.
Very curiously, based on his behavior following the Senate votes yesterday, it appears that perhaps the Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has finally decided that maybe he needs to engage a leadership role in more than just name. Until now, McConnell, has behaved largely like a Trump lackey; reacting whenever the President says move. The fact that Pelosi is now clearly dominating the legislative response to the shut-down, belittles what should be McConnell’s equally powerful role.
Based on events that occurred yesterday, the Majority Leader is being perceived as weak. McConnell did bring the two doomed bills to re-open the Government to the Senate Floor yesterday knowing that they would both fail. He did not calculate, however, that there would be more GOP defections to the Democratic bill than there was Democratic support for the President’s bill. Perhaps worse for McConnell was that during the luncheon of the Republican caucus with Vice President Pence in attendance, Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin personally attacked the Majority Leader. He reportedly charged McConnell with not effectively working to negotiate an end to the Government shut-down.
The Majority Leader apparently was so stung by this public castigation that he immediately moved to sit down with Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to see if they could begin a process to reopen the Government. McConnell knows he is up against an unpredictable President; but he also recognizes that members of his own caucus are receiving serious heat back in their States. These Senators—unlike the President—are hearing the voices of their constituents’ outrage. Senators appear also to have conveyed to the Majority Leader that the insensitivity of the members of the Administration to the people’s suffering will have even more lasting political consequences than current polls are already suggesting. (Unlike the President, Members of Congress go through TSA airport security lines and have had intimate contact with actual voters—Government workers working without being paid.)
Personally, McConnell has seen himself politically marginalized by the President as well as by Pelosi. In legislative terms it continues to make McConnell’s ability to lead directly linked to the President. The Senate Majority Leader is not asserting independence and many Senate Republicans, especially those Senators seeking re-election in 2020, are unsure whether it might not be more in their interest to run away from the President than to appear to his lapdogs. McConnell must rise to this challenge and stand up to the President or he will lose his ability to lead the Senate.