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McConnell at center of shutdown impasse — but uncharacteristically disengaged

WASHINGTON - The federal government has been partially shut down for a week, hundreds of thousands of workers are furloughed, but there's no sign of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the veteran dealmaker who's brokered an end to so many Washington impasses.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is met by reporters as he arrives at the Capitol on the first morning of a partial government shutdown in Washington, Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is met by reporters as he arrives at the Capitol on the first morning of a partial government shutdown in Washington, Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018.Read moreJ. Scott Applewhite / AP

WASHINGTON - The federal government has been partially shut down for a week, hundreds of thousands of workers are furloughed, but there’s no sign of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the veteran dealmaker who’s brokered an end to so many Washington impasses.

McConnell is home in Kentucky, and the senator's spokesman, Donald Stewart, said it's up to President Donald Trump and the Democrats to come up with a deal to end the stalemate over funding for Trump's border wall.

In other words, in McConnell's view, it's not on him.

Still, the sidelines is an unusual place to find the Senate leader with Washington in the throes of a budget breakdown - especially one he was determined to avoid and may have difficulty resolving next week with his Senate Republicans fearful of crossing Trump.

McConnell has made no secret of his distaste for government shutdowns, and just days before it happened he predicted that it would not, telling Capitol Hill reporters that the public doesn't like shutdowns and "there's no education in the second kick of a mule."

"We've been down this path before and I don't believe we'll go down this path again," McConnell said then.

But McConnell is dealing with an unreliable partner in the White House. The week before Christmas, McConnell pushed the Senate to unanimously pass a short-term spending bill that would have kept the government open through early February, but without giving Trump the $5 billion that he wants for his wall, the one he repeatedly insisted Mexico would finance.

McConnell did so with the understanding that Trump would support the bill, allies said. But the president changed course abruptly the next morning under intense pressure from conservatives, and the House never took up the Senate's bill, instead passing legislation to keep the government open and fund Trump's wall that had no chance in the Senate.

A quarter of the government shut down on Dec. 22, and there's been very little progress in negotiations since. And McConnell himself has appeared to disengage, putting the onus on Democrats and Trump after his initial efforts were undercut by the president.

"McConnell is one of the best vote-counters in politics, and he generally knows when to fold a losing hand," said Bruce Reed, who was Joe Biden's chief of staff from 2011 to 2013, when McConnell and the then-vice president worked together to strike some critical deals. "He did that on a number of occasions in the Obama years. He's now stuck with a president who prefers to double down on a losing hand."

Allies point out that in budget fights under the Obama administration, it was up to McConnell to corral recalcitrant Republicans to make a deal with a Democratic administration, something he did successfully in high-pressure moments time and again. In this shutdown fight, though, the dynamic is reversed and it's up to Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. - once Democrats take over the House on Jan. 3 - to find the votes for legislation that Trump will sign, Republicans say.

"The difference between his position now and his position over the last 10 years is he was representing the party that had the impasse in final negotiations, so it was incumbent on him to find a way out of the impasse," said Josh Holmes, a McConnell adviser and former chief of staff.

"Now there is no impasse in his conference, they're united," Holmes said. "So when people say McConnell should come in and negotiate a way out of this, they're asking him to negotiate against himself."

Intent on reopening the government, House Democrats are weighing several legislative options they could pass immediately upon taking control. The bills under consideration would fund border fencing and levee walls that Democrats have already supported - but not the concrete wall Trump once promised.

McConnell and his Republicans will face pressure from constituents who want an end to the shutdown and conservatives who want the wall - and, of course, Trump.

McConnell and Trump have had a rocky relationship, publicly sparring last year over the Senate's failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act. But McConnell's successful handling of two Supreme Court nomination fights, especially the recent battle over Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, put him squarely back in Trump's good graces.

There's been no recent renewal of public tensions between the two, though the negotiations leading up to the shutdown brought one of their long-standing disagreements to the fore as Trump urged McConnell to change Senate rules so that the House border wall bill could pass with a simple majority instead of 60 votes, and McConnell refused.

McConnell, 76, who is up for reelection to a seventh Senate term in 2020, has repeatedly lauded the work accomplished in the two years under Trump, saying it's been one of the most successful congresses in recent decades. He points to a massive tax cut bill, confirmation of two conservatives to the Supreme Court and 82 other lower-court judges, as well as passage of legislation to address the opioid crisis and overhaul the criminal justice system.

The senator made the same points to Trump recently, according to a tweet Trump sent Sunday night saying: "Mitch McConnell just told a group of people, and me, that he has been in the U.S. Senate for 32 years and the last two have been by far the best & most productive of his career. Tax & Regulation Cuts, VA Choice, Farm Bill, Criminal Justice Reform, Judgeships & much more. Great!"

McConnell didn't want it all to end with a shutdown. But the stage was set partly because he and other GOP leaders, after hearing Trump level numerous threats to get his border wall money, urged the president to put the fight off until after the midterm elections, concerned that a pre-election showdown could hurt Republican chances.

McConnell and other congressional GOP leaders promised to fight for the wall after the elections, but when the moment arrived it turned out they had no real strategy to get the wall funding Trump sought. So Trump, egged on by conservatives lawmakers and commentators, disregarded McConnell's opposition and walked into a shutdown that there's now no obvious way out of.

Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., a House freshman who previously served as Kentucky's commissioner of agriculture, said that he shares McConnell's opposition to shutdowns, but that voters in his rural Kentucky district are strongly behind Trump even as the standoff continues. As he prepares to face voters in 2020, McConnell will need the president's support.

But Comer said that McConnell, more than anyone else, should be at Trump's side during negotiations to bring the stalemate to a close.

"My experience with McConnell from a historical perspective, and as well as a colleague so to speak over the last 19 years in Kentucky politics, he's the best in the business at closing deals," Comer said. "I hope the president is in communication with McConnell hourly, because I think that McConnell has the best perspective on how to navigate the perils of a shutdown."

A McConnell spokesman did not immediately respond Friday when asked when the senator had most recently spoken with Trump.

Starting in 2011, when Republicans recaptured the House and began looking for opportunities to challenge President Barack Obama, McConnell settled into his role as dealmaker.

Three raging battles - over raising the debt limit, a "fiscal cliff," and whether to block funding for the Affordable Care Act - began with House conservatives making demands and ended with McConnell bringing most of his caucus into an agreement that preserved the status quo.

In one of these fights, as Congress was nearing a deadline for the expiration of Bush-era tax cuts in the waning hours of 2012, McConnell and Biden spoke at least 13 times, working through the details of a bill that could pass both chambers of Congress. The two men, who had known each other for nearly 30 years, revised a proposal that had stalled in the House, forcing Republicans to commit to a tax hike on top income rates and pushing Democrats to back off some 2012 campaign promises.

After negotiating with a White House exhausted by crises, McConnell sidelined conservatives who favored no deal at all - then argued that he'd pulled out a win for them.

"In a government controlled two-thirds by the Democrats - we got permanency for 99 percent of the Bush tax cuts," McConnell said after selling his caucus on the deal.

Democrats credited McConnell for keeping open lines of communication with Biden, even when conservatives criticized him. In the aftermath of each crisis, McConnell placed some or most of the blame on his own party, casting himself as the pragmatist who could keep the government running.

That history has made many conservatives skeptical of McConnell. In 2014, the leader faced a credible primary challenge from Matt Bevin, a businessman who excoriated him for raising the debt limit and failing to repeal the ACA; after losing that primary, Bevin waged a successful campaign for governor.

But more recently, conservatives have celebrated McConnell's single-minded focus on confirming judges. Asked if they worried about the leader siding with Democrats in January to end the shutdown, House conservatives said that the court fights had revealed a McConnell who they expect will not back down.

"The Senate will often pass something to the House, knowing Republicans don't support it," said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa. "But when you look at how strong Mitch stood against Merrick Garland and how strong he stood on confirming Brett Kavanaugh, that's promising."

Garland was Obama's Supreme Court nominee who never got a hearing as McConnell refused to even consider filling a vacancy in the 2016 election year.

Next week, McConnell's caucus will also shift to the right, with four Republicans replacing Democratic senators and Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., replacing Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., a skeptic of the border wall.

All of the incoming Republicans ran on Trump's border wall, though they have not said much about the specifics of the shutdown. On her Facebook page, Blackburn has urged supporters to sign a petition supporting the border wall. In columns and debates all year, incoming senators like North Dakota's Kevin Cramer and Missouri's Josh Hawley committed to the border wall.

“Enough apologies and temporizing,” Hawley wrote in a September column for Fox News. “Build the wall. Fund the Border Patrol. Back ICE. You can count on me to fight for all of the above.”