- - Thursday, June 7, 2018


Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, is not the most charismatic, telegenic, or gripping figure to have graced the politics of the republic. His soft-spoken Southern manners tend more toward the soporific than the stimulating, and they sometimes lead his critics to underestimate him.

The senator from Kentucky is a remarkably shrewd and skilled tactician. Lyndon Baines Johnson was called the of “Master of the Senate,” but he usually worked with large Democratic majorities, and Mr. McConnell, if not a master nevertheless gets a lot done with razor-thin majorities. Herding cats, as one former majority leader said, is not easy. Few men or women hold a higher opinion of themselves than a senator, always eager to strike out on his own.

Mr. McConnell’s announcement that he will scuttle the typical August recess, long anticipated and finally confirmed this week, has scrambled the campaign plans of many senators, particularly incumbent Democrats who face an uphill struggle to re-election. Mr. McConnell blames the Democratic minority for pouring molasses in the gears of the Senate, holding hostage hundreds of the president’s nominees for office, particularly in the judiciary. “Due to the historic obstruction by Senate Democrats of the president’s nominees, and the goal of passing appropriations bills prior to the end of the fiscal year,” Mr. McConnell said, “the August recess has been canceled.” Senators will get the first week of August off, and then it’s back to work.

It’s not as if the Senate could get much done if all the senators stayed in town. Like Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House, Mr. McConnell knows better than to put legislation up for a vote when he knows there are not enough votes to pass it, or that it’s legislation the president won’t sign. That’s why immigration legislation is a dead letter this year.

“I don’t know about the House,” Mr. McConnell told a television interviewer, “but in the Senate it’s not on our agenda. I went to immigration early this year, wide open for amendments. The Senate did not want to pass any particular version of it.”

With only a one-vote majority, the Republican senators have little advantage to push through President Trump’s agenda. The Democrats have skillfully exploited this advantage of their own in pursuit of their aim to “resist” everything the majority puts forward.

This has created a bottleneck of federal appointments. “It’s taking an average of 85 days for a Trump nominee to clear the Senate, compared with 67 days for former President Obama and 44 days for former President George W. Bush,” The Hill, the Capitol Hill political daily, calculates. That the Senate has nonetheless been able to confirm so many conservative federal judges is a testament to Mr. McConnell’s skill, and is likely to do more to cement President Trump’s legacy than anything else. But the Democratic obstruction cuts into time that could be spent on other business, such as passing appropriations bills, for example.

And now it’s cutting into campaign time. In election years, incumbent senators use the August recess to go home and press the flesh. This year far more incumbent Democrats than Republicans are facing voter reckoning. Twenty-six seats at stake are held by Democrats and the independents who caucus with them, and only nine are held by Republicans. Making matters even stickier for the Democrats, 10 of the seats they have to defend are in states that Donald Trump carried in 2016.

Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the leader of the Democratic minority, pretends to welcome the cancellation: “We believe this previously unscheduled session time can be put to good use,” he says. But more candid Democrats are nevertheless grousing: “It’s a calculation of raw politics,” complains Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, facing a tight re-election struggle in a state that the president carried in 2016.

President Trump naturally likes the trimming of the August recess. Just last month he tweeted that “the Senate should get funding done before the August break, or NOT GO HOME [the usual capital letters his]. Wall and Border Security should be included. Also waiting for approval of almost 300 nominations, worst in history. Democrats are doing everything possible to obstruct, all they know how to do. STAY!”

If the scuttled recess succeeds in confirming more Trump nominees and helps Republicans retain the Senate it will show that Mitch McConnell is a majority leader not to be underestimated.

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