Feb 14, 2021 - Politics & Policy

McConnell's two-step portends challenge for Biden and Schumer

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is seen walking away from the Senate Chamber.
Mitch McConnell leaving the Senate Chamber on Saturday. Photo: Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

With his words and deeds, Mitch McConnell has shown how to retain power when you no longer hold it.

Why it matters: Perhaps the most powerful Senate leader since LBJ, McConnell sets the chamber’s agenda whether in the majority or, as he is now, the minority. This reality has huge consequences as President Biden pushes for coronavirus relief, confirmation of his nominees and legislation crucial to Democrats' popularity ahead of midterms.

  • The Kentucky Republican's survival instincts were on display Saturday at the end of Donald Trump’s impeachment trial. McConnell previewed, then cast, his influential vote against convicting the former president — only to deliver a blistering condemnation of Trump just after his acquittal, noting he can still be held accountable for his actions in civil or criminal courts.
  • McConnell's two-step allows him to maintain fidelity with the majority of the Republican caucus while trying to damage Trump's chances at a comeback, and claiming some moral high ground with the broader American electorate.
  • In areas where Democrats may now hold the votes to steamroll McConnell — such as using budget reconciliation power to pass COVID relief with a simple majority — he is positioning Republicans as the victims rather than drivers of partisan excess.

Don't forget: McConnell enabled Trump throughout his presidency, standing with him through ethically, legally and politically questionable behavior while actively pushing through slates of conservative jurists and a deficit-raising tax cut.

  • Only after the Electoral College made Biden's 2020 election win official did McConnell criticize Trump's behavior and publicly break with him.
  • McConnell telegraphed his impeachment approach with his pre-trial actions: He slow-rolled the proceedings until Trump was out of office, then argued it was unconstitutional to try him because he was out of office.
  • That helped create what Democrats termed a “January exception” to the impeachment process.

Flashback: McConnell in 2016 previewed his tactical ruthlessness when he created a different kind of exception — refusing to fill the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s vacancy on the Supreme Court until after President Obama left office.

  • That effectively established precedent to deny an outgoing president a high-court vacancy during his last year if the opposing political party holds the Senate, thus controlling confirmations.

Be smart: Biden is president and Chuck Schumer holds the title of Senate majority leader. But Minority Leader McConnell will determine many of their wins and losses for the next two years — just as he did last week.

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