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McConnell’s Grip Erodes as Trump Tugs GOP Senators to His Orbit

(C) Bloomberg. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, attends a Republican caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer set up Thursday night votes on a short-term debt ceiling increase that would leave the battle to be rejoined less than two months from now, in the middle of an already packed congressional agenda.

(Bloomberg) — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell found himself this week in the unenviable position of begging for votes from within his own caucus.

The shrewd partisan strategist and nemesis to two Democratic presidents, who has repeatedly held his party together in the face of fierce public criticism, was only able to muster 10 of the 49 other GOP senators to follow him in a critical engagement on the central campaign he set for the coming months.

McConnell’s case wasn’t helped by a couple of withering statements from former President Donald Trump and the spreading fear of primary challenges from the populist right.

McConnell was able to deliver on the short-term deal with one vote to spare. But the race to get to the 61-38 tally Thursday evening to overcome a filibuster against the measure underscored the continuing hold Trump exerts over Republicans in Congress as he seeks to re-assert his dominance of the party.

Republicans were already on the fence about McConnell’s proffered deal to extend the nation’s debt ceiling through early December, a move that averts immediate economic catastrophe but very much keeps the issue alive.

Only two Republicans up for re-election next year backed McConnell on the vote to stop the filibuster: Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, whose home-state political base is so strong that she won re-election in 2010 as an independent despite losing the Republican primary, and John Thune of South Dakota, the second-ranking Republican leader in the Senate.

No Republican voted for the new debt limit, which passed with 50 Democratic votes once the filibuster was lifted.

The outcome avoided a humiliating defeat for a party leader who has remained unchallenged in his post for 15 years, the longest tenure ever for a Republican Senate leader, outlasting a succession of counterparts in the House who have departed amid sniping from the right.

But the close call suggests reduced room for maneuver ahead, raising the risk he will be unable to pull his party back from the precipice when the battle over the federal debt limit resumes in December. And it dramatically surfaced the roiling tension within the party between the business-friendly traditional conservatism represented by McConnell and the populism Trump champions.

It’s not the first time McConnell has recently found himself in the minority within his own caucus. In August, he was one of just 12 Republicans to support a $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill. And late last year, McConnell put himself squarely at odds with Trump — and the right flank of his party — when he recognized Joe Biden as the winner of the 2020 presidential election in mid-December after the Electoral College vote.

Late Thursday, McConnell worked up to the last minute to secure the votes he needed and endured furious criticism in a contentious emergency meeting of Republicans shortly beforehand.

Senator Roy Blunt, a close ally of McConnell who is retiring in 2022, wavered until nearly the final moment. He declared himself still undecided only an hour before the vote. Nearly every other senator had voted and McConnell was still short when Blunt finally supplied the critical vote allowing the Republican leader to prevail. Senator Mike Rounds, a South Dakota Republican, followed with one more before the vote was quickly gaveled to a close.

The push for votes was especially jarring because McConnell, in contrast to Republicans’ recent leaders in the House, has established a reputation for carefully discerning whether he has sufficient backing within his party before offering a deal.

Trump, who has seethed against McConnell since the Kentucky senator criticized his role in stoking tensions before the Jan. 6 riot, trained his sights on the Republican leader immediately after the temporary debt deal was announced. Trump accused him Wednesday of “folding to the Democrats again.” Just before the vote, Trump again implored senators not to vote “for this terrible deal.”

Republican senators echoed the former president’s criticisms.

“I don’t understand why we’re folding here,” Senator Lindsey Graham (NYSE:GHM) of South Carolina said on Thursday, borrowing Trump’s words.

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas blasted McConnell’s deal as “a strategic mistake” on the Senate floor. “Chuck Schumer won this game of chicken,” Cruz declared.

McConnell, who under Barack Obama bestowed on himself the nickname “Grim Reaper” for his record of obstructing Democratic presidential priorities, held his party together through precedent-breaking feats such as his refusal to consider any Supreme Court nominee during Obama’s final year in office and his later pivot to rush through a Trump nominee to the high court ahead of the 2020 election. Those gambits laid the groundwork for the current 6-3 conservative court majority.

He has spent recent months engineering the confrontation over the debt limit as Democrats debate Biden’s $3.5 trillion economic plan, demanding that Democrats use a convoluted and time-consuming budget process known as reconciliation to avert an economically catastrophic U.S. debt default.

The strategy has kept the rising national debt at the forefront of news coverage as Congress considers Biden’s economic plan and helped amplify a sense of political disorder while the president is down in the polls. The party-line vote to raise the debt limit also provides fodder for attack ads against Democrats in next year’s midterm congressional elections.

But the showdown became perilous as an Oct. 18 deadline for a U.S. debt default neared and pressure rose within the Democratic party to carve out a new exception to the filibuster rule for the debt limit, a precedent that would have weakened the primary instrument McConnell has used to obstruct the Democratic majority.

Two Democratic moderates, Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have been bulwarks against weakening the filibuster but Republicans feared they were wavering. Biden even weighed in Tuesday evening, saying a filibuster carve-out was “a real possibility.”

Republican Senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota said the possibility of losing the leverage of the filibuster was paramount in the decision to extend the offer of a temporary deal to Democrats.

“Let’s not tempt fate and push Joe Manchin to wreck the Senate and end the filibuster,” Cramer said was the prevailing sentiment in his party.

Even so, he voted no on the Senate floor.

(C)2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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