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Could Mitch McConnell still be the 'guy who gets us out of shutdowns'?

Amid the first fitful signs of Senate action since the shutdown began, his supporters and critics agree: If the government is to reopen, the majority leader could well hold the keys.
Image: Mitch McConnell
As the shutdown officially passes the one-month mark this week, McConnell has kept most of his party in line behind him and the president.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Mitch McConnell once called himself the guy who gets Congress out of government shutdowns. The Senate majority leader may still turn out to be that guy, but first he will have to emerge from the shadows where he has spent the last 33 days.

McConnell, R-Ky., hasn't just failed to get his party out of a shutdown; he hasn't even appeared to try. He has instead stood on the sidelines watching the battle of wills of the two most important people in Washington: President Donald Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Up to now, at least, he's dismissed action on any appropriations legislation, long-shot or otherwise, as unnecessary "show votes," leaving the Senate in a state of suspended animation while the Democratic House passes funding bill after funding bill.

But on Thursday, the Senate is finally expected to snap into action — or at least, the appearance of action. McConnell has finally stepped forward and set votes on two competing measures: One is Trump's plan to reopen the government while providing $5.7 billion in border wall funding and temporary protections for people who were brought to the U.S illegally as children. The other is a Democratic proposal to reopen the government that excludes funding for the wall altogether.

Neither piece of legislation is expected to clear the Senate's 60-vote hurdle. But both represent the most visible sign of movement on McConnell's part since the shutdown began.

From the moment that Trump abruptly ditched what McConnell thought was a done deal last month to back a temporary funding bill, the majority leader's self-assigned role has been that of careful bystander.

Jim Dyer, who helped negotiate ends to the shutdowns of the mid-1990s as the Republican staff director on the House Appropriations Committee, told NBC News that McConnell has a right to tell the White House that it won't undercut him again, and that it must make clear what Trump is willing to sign into law.

“I think that’s probably his mindset at this point in time,” said Dyer, now a senior adviser at the lobbying and law firm Baker Donelson.

Democrats have spent the past month watching for signs of GOP unease with McConnell's new posture. After all, by one measure, the strategy has been an abject failure: The man who said five years ago that he’s the one who makes sure government opens for business ("Remember me? I am the guy that gets us out of shutdowns. It’s a failed policy,” then-minority leader McConnell told CNN in 2014) has led the upper chamber during the longest stoppage in U.S. history.

Democratic lawmakers may be waiting a while. Because viewed from a purely political perspective, McConnell's approach has been a resounding success — at least, so far: only 5 percent of registered voters surveyed in a Politico/Morning Consult poll this month blamed congressional Republicans for the shutdown while 47 percent blame Trump and 33 percent blamed Democrats.

McConnell “shouldn't be expected to save [the administration] from every mess, nor be the face of it,” said Rory Cooper, managing director at communications firm Purple Strategies, who served as communications director to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., during the 16-day government shutdown in 2013.

It's no secret that when the current shutdown took center stage, McConnell effectively walked off it. The memorable Oval Office meeting in which Trump said he would be "proud" to take the blame for a shutdown featured the incoming leader of one chamber of Congress — Pelosi, D-Calif., soon-to-be House speaker — but the minority leader of the other: Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. McConnell was absent.

He has spoken on the Senate floor, but has been missing from White House press conferences and pool sprays, even as other GOP leaders lined up behind Trump.

During the White House meeting two weeks ago in which Trump abruptly left after Pelosi told him that Democrats wouldn’t give him his wall funding, “McConnell didn’t say a word at the meeting — not a word,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told reporters.

McConnell's lack of participation, Dyer said, may be explained by the fact that he was burned by Trump at the beginning of the crisis and now requires that Trump not only make the first move, but be clear about what he would sign.

Nonetheless, McConnell has effectively done Trump's bidding, refusing until Thursday's votes to bring any funding bills up for consideration by the full Senate unless they met with the president's approval. He has gone from saying last year that a wall is “probably not the best way to secure the border” in some places to a recent statement that Trump’s $5.7 billion wall-funding request is “reasonable,” and he argued in recent days that Democrats are not budging in negotiations simply because Trump is president.

Last week alone, McConnell blocked two government spending bills Senate Democrats tried to bring to the floor, saying that the upper chamber wouldn’t “participate in something that doesn’t lead to an outcome.”

Democrats have mocked the lack of agency that statement implies. The Senate wasn't voting on funding bills, Schumer recently said, “because Leader McConnell is hiding behind President Trump, saying he won’t bring to the floor a bill to reopen the government unless the president says OK.”

“You do not need a permission slip from President Trump to do your job. It’s time for the Senate to act,” Durbin tweeted Wednesday.

It's a position guaranteed to resonate in blue states — which may help explain why several GOP senators up for re-election on potentially hostile 2020 terrain expressed similar sentiments recently, with Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine all calling for the government to reopen with or without the president's border-wall funding request.

Schumer and other Senate Democrats have been predicting that more of their Republican colleagues will crack. “Our view is that Republicans are soon going to be putting enough pressure on Trump to either go around him or force him to change,” he told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow last week.

But as the shutdown officially passed the one-month mark this week, there's been little sign of a looming GOP revolt. Instead, McConnell has kept most of his party in line behind him and the president, with an eye on other re-election fights and futures: those of Senate Republicans who represent states won by Trump — and his own.

A few rank-and-file members in the Senate have tried to come up with solutions that might meet with the leader's approval, if not the president's, beyond the proposals expected to fall short Thursday. In recent days, that's taken the form of a bipartisan draft letter circulating around the Senate that floats the idea of a bill opening the government for three weeks, to buy time for a bipartisan agreement.

But GOP senators say this effort is likely to meet the same fate as the failed pushes that preceded it.

“You know when that's going to happen?” Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., told reporters of the effort. “When you look outside your window and see donkeys fly.”

Asked if there’s anything more McConnell should do at the moment, Kennedy said there was: “Pray. In fact, he may already be doing that right now.”

Others say he may have a few more options — but that whether he deploys any of them all depends on whether the man who "gets us out of shutdowns" finally decides he wants to reclaim the title. “The only person who’s going to move it off the dime is McConnell," Dyer said. "And I think both sides, or one side, is going to have to go to him and say, ‘Mitch — help.’”