WASHINGTON — When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell met with President Joe Biden last month, he gave him an ultimatum: Back off your demands for equal spending on the military and domestic budget or there won’t be a government funding deal.
“From our perspective, you have already lavished $700 billion on your domestic priorities, and we’re not going to pay you a bonus to meet the country’s defense needs,” McConnell told Biden during a White House meeting with congressional leaders, he recalled to NBC News in a wide-ranging interview Wednesday in his Capitol office.
His gambit worked. Democrats softened after years of successfully demanding “parity” between the two pots, accepting $858 billion in Pentagon funding and $772.5 billion in domestic money.
“I never budged on that. Never budged. So yeah, I’m proud of it,” McConnell said, hailing it as an “extremely important” win for conservatives. He said it’ll mean they no longer “pay a ransom on the domestic side” in order to secure hefty military spending.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill.. said he’s “disappointed” in the unequal spending levels but argued that the Kentucky Republican was using his leverage.
“He’s in a bargaining position; he’s taking advantage,” Durbin said.
Overall, it’s been a rough two years for McConnell. He lost his majority on the eve of Jan. 6 in a major upset. He watched a Democratic Congress spend trillions in party-line bills against his fierce objections. He feuded acrimoniously with former President Donald Trump. His party underperformed in the 2022 election, consigning him to the minority for another two years.
Yet a reflective McConnell is celebrating two things in the final days of the Democratic trifecta: saving the filibuster against a progressive campaign to nix it and resetting the table on military spending.
The massive bill passed the Senate on Thursday and is headed for a vote in the House before Biden can sign it into law.
It could set the table for future negotiations, when the GOP is sure to keep demanding higher spending on defense and less on education, health care, Pell Grants and other domestic items. Democrats have plenty to be happy about in the new bill, but breaching the "parity" standard has been a source of angst.
“I don’t like it,” Durbin said. But with Republicans poised to claim the House within weeks and rip up the entire agreement, he said, “we’re in a pretty desperate situation.”
Of course, McConnell’s leverage only existed because of the filibuster, the 60-vote rule to pass most legislation in the Senate. He knew that would be targeted when he saw Democrats campaigning in 2020 on ending the filibuster — and winning. A coalition of party insiders and progressive groups was plotting to quickly kill the rule and open the door to passing major legislation by a majority vote.
So McConnell began the new session with an aggressive move: Demand that newly minted Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer promise to protect the filibuster, or he’d block Democrats from taking control of committees under the new 50-50 setup.
The move infuriated Democrats. Schumer refused. But it prompted Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., to issue categorical statements that they wouldn’t nuke the filibuster.
“I actually slow-walked the organization of the Senate in the beginning, until we had public statements from both Sinema and Manchin indicating they wouldn’t do that,” McConnell said.
The preservation of the filibuster turned out to be one of the most consequential moves in the 117th Congress. It forced the death of various progressive ideas like raising the minimum wage, a federal voting rights law, the DREAM Act and child care funding.
It made Senate Republicans equal partners in negotiating deals on infrastructure, the CHIPS and Science Act, and a modest measure to toughen gun laws, all of which McConnell encouraged and voted for.
His decision to work with Democrats has drawn heavy criticism from the right wing of the GOP, deepening his bitter feud with Trump, who accused him of being too compromising with the opposition party. McConnell rejects that position, arguing that those bills are all in the “best interest of the country.”
But McConnell saw another benefit to playing ball.
A “byproduct” of those bipartisan wins, he said, was that they “may have reassured Manchin and Sinema” that they didn’t need to nuke the filibuster to get things done.
Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said: “Mitch’s handling of the sensitivity of the loss of the filibuster goes somewhat unnoticed” on and off Capitol Hill. “Conservatives can complain about certain things that Democrats have done to us,” he said. “Mitch’s role in helping facilitate peaceful legislation has prevented very, very hostile legislation from happening.”
Another McConnell-allied Senate Republican said part of his motivation in the bipartisan deals was to win back suburban and college-educated voters who have drifted toward Democrats.
Democrats say McConnell was pushing for deals due to the rising support in the Democratic Party in recent years to end the filibuster.
“I certainly think the growing unity of the Democratic caucus around the filibuster likely put pressure to open the aperture of compromise,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.
McConnell has a famously warm relationship with Sinema, who changed her party affiliation from Democrat to independent weeks ago. Asked if he advised her to do that, McConnell didn’t directly answer, but said: “We talk a lot and she’s a genuine independent... I wasn’t totally surprised that she decided to call herself that and to re-register in Arizona.”
In the interview, McConnell also looked ahead to the next few years of working with a Republican-controlled House, which will likely be led by Rep. Kevin McCarthy — if he can secure the votes he needs.
“I have a really good relationship with McCarthy, but he’s got a difficult hand to play,” McConnell said. “We all want him to succeed and hope he does.”
He also looked back on the debt ceiling agreement he struck last year with Democrats — and issued a call for the next Congress.
“At the risk of sounding patriotic here, you just can’t have the country default. It just can’t happen,” McConnell said. “And we always go through a lot of angst over that, particularly on the Republican side. But at the end of the day, there has to be a way found to go forward — and I did find one.”