Can Mitch McConnell keep his ‘No government shutdowns’ promise?

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) stands during a news conference with Republican Senate leadership for the 114th Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington November 13, 2014. (REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)
Meredith Shiner
·Political correspondent

Standing just feet from the Senate chamber Thursday, Sen. Ted Cruz made a declaration that should give Majority Leader-elect Mitch McConnell pause.

"The only people who have ever threatened a government shutdown have been President Obama and [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid,” said Cruz, the Texas Republican who is widely regarded as the mastermind of the GOP’s 2013 government-shutdown strategy. “They forced a government shutdown last year. Nobody on the Republican side wants to see a government shutdown,” he said.

Moments after Cruz spoke, McConnell held a press conference on the other side of the chamber to celebrate his election as leader. “We will not be shutting the government down or threatening to default on the federal debt,” he declared, repeating a promise he’d made at his victory press conference after his re-election.

McConnell’s promise, however, is easier said than kept. And Cruz’s remarks underscore why.

Cruz had made exactly the same argument in 2013, just hours before provoking the first shutdown of the U.S. government since the 1990s, a closure that lasted 16 days and came with a $24 billion pricetag. “Let me be very, very clear. I do not believe we should shut down the federal government. The only reason we might shut down the federal government is if President Obama and Majority Leader Harry Reid decide they want to force a government shutdown,” Cruz said in September 2013.

Now Republicans on the Hill say they are anxious for Cruz or like-minded House conservatives to again take up the charge as they stand up to what they see as Democratic abuse of the levers of power in a two-party system.

Whereas the 2013 shutdown came on the heels of Republican opposition to the president over funding the Affordable Care Act—which passed Congress in 2010 with only Democratic support—congressional conservatives today are itching for a fight over Obama’s expected executive order on immigration, which could delay or prevent the deportation of up to 5 million undocumented people.

Cruz has already vowed to do anything in his power to stop Obama from carrying out his plan, and told Yahoo News that the party should aim to “get past the lame duck and into the next session” before passing a long-term spending bill so that ousted senators are not setting the long-term agenda.

Meanwhile, a growing group of House conservatives who oppose immigration changes, like Steve King of Iowa and Virginia’s Dave Brat—whose ads against “amnesty” helped him defeat former Majority Leader Eric Cantor—are now telling reporters that they would support a shutdown strategy in an attempt to force Obama to face broad national consequences if he issues an executive order on deportations.

Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said that Republicans will fight “tooth and nail” against such an executive order. Like McConnell, Boehner says he’d prefer to avoid another shutdown. But unlike McConnell, he has not taken shutdown off the table.

And while Republican leaders remember the tumult that the shutdown caused for the party — GOP favorability plummeted to 28 percentconservatives point to the 2014 midterms as proof the effort did not hurt Republicans in the least.

The shutdown threats have thrown more moderate Republican aides into a tizzy.

“Everyone saw what a disaster it was,” said one senior Senate Republican aide. “There’s got to be a better way to succeed than shutting down the government. We have to be smarter than that.”

Republican aides approached for this story — especially on the Senate side, where GOP leaders are still high on their takeover of the majority — say the effort to fund the government will likely be “messy” and “difficult” if Obama issues the executive order before they can move on a spending bill of some kind.

Congress needs to approve some sort of spending bill before Dec. 11, when the current government-funding bill is set to expire.

Those Republicans who want to keep the government open disagree over the best way to do so.

Republicans could pass a short-term continuing resolution, a stopgap measure that maintains current spending levels, to keep the government open until the new year, when the new GOP Senate majority would have a greater say on how government money is appropriated. Before the threat of executive action, this was the prevailing position of conservatives who want more immediate influence on spending issues.

But establishment GOP leaders argue that approving a longer-term spending bill through the end of the fiscal year would not diminish the influence of the 2015 Republican majority. They have told members that approving this medium-term bill could help them restore the appropriations process by allowing the GOP-led Senate Appropriations Committee to write the sort of full, individual spending bills that were once the annual congressional norm.

That argument, however, has left some conservatives unsettled and worried that it means Republicans would be shirking their responsibility to take set spending levels and slash government spending as soon as they can. If unhappy conservatives decide en bloc not to vote for a long-term bill, and there’s no short-term alternative already worked up, a shutdown would ensue.

Confronting a shutdown even before taking up his post as majority leader would not be an ideal scenario for McConnell, given that Republicans are still going to need to experiment with how they will find the required 60 votes to break a filibuster on any bill. A spending bill that attracts a Cruz might not be able to pick off the moderate Democrats McConnell would need to get a bill through to the president’s desk.

At the same time, Democrats could gain politically in the short term if the Republicans deepen their rifts even before they’ve assumed the majority, or if they fail to find enough votes for any spending bill.

Democrats could benefit in other ways if Obama issues an immigration executive order before the government is funded in the lame-duck session. His move would help restore bonds with Latinos and advocacy groups who expected the order to be issued before the election. And it would force Republicans to put up or shut up on the shutdown threats, grinding the gears of government to a halt over what Democrats will surely paint as a last-ditch effort to keep Latino families together in the face of Republican opposition to immigration reform.

Reid, who will be minority leader in 2015, is backing Obama’s potential executive action.

“I strongly support the president’s use of his well-established authority to provide relief to families who continue to suffer under our broken immigration system. The President can and should act to provide this relief,” the Nevada Democrat said in a statement last week. “It is incumbent on responsible leaders within the Republican Party to work with Democrats and complete the business of keeping the government open in the coming weeks, regardless of when the President acts to provide relief to families.”