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Why Mitch McConnell Is Promising A Government Shutdown Fight—And Why It's Crazy

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Two months ago today, I wrote an article explaining how growing GOP resistance to a recently proposed EPA rule to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, made a confrontation between the White House and congressional Republicans—including a possible government shutdown—much more likely to occur after the November midterm election than before.

Today, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell himself confirmed my hunch. McConnell sat down for an interview in Kentucky with Politico Senate reporter Manu Raju, and laid out the strategy.

Mitch McConnell has a game plan to confront President Barack Obama with a stark choice next year: Accept bills reining in the administration’s policies or veto them and risk a government shutdown.

In an extensive interview here, the typically reserved McConnell laid out his clearest thinking yet of how he would lead the Senate if Republicans gain control of the chamber. The emerging strategy: Attach riders to spending bills that would limit Obama policies on everything from the environment to health care, consider using an arcane budget tactic to circumvent Democratic filibusters and force the president to “move to the center” if he wants to get any new legislation through Congress.

In short, it’s a recipe for a confrontational end to the Obama presidency.

“We’re going to pass spending bills, and they’re going to have a lot of restrictions on the activities of the bureaucracy,” McConnell said in an interview aboard his campaign bus traveling through Western Kentucky coal country. “That’s something he won’t like, but that will be done. I guarantee it.”

There’s much more in the article. But the promise of brinksmanship is the most important revelation. It’s certainly the most important to Democrats, who are trying to convince voters that a Republican Senate would be a setback for the country. And it’s important because it sets a level of expectation among Republicans in Congress that will be very difficult to ratchet back.

McConnell's is a dangerous strategy—more dangerous than the ones that defined both of the last two Congresses. Because if Republicans claim the Senate, they will find themselves at the apogee of their power under Barack Obama, just as Obama reaches the point where he has the least to lose by calling their bluff. Obama will have no more elections in front of him, and thus no reason to cave. Republicans will be less inclined to back down than at any point in the past four years, and won’t have Harry Reid to blame for their inability to control the agenda.

But if you actually game it out, what McConnell’s promising makes very little sense. Even if you assume he and the House Speaker can unite their fractious conferences tightly enough to round up majorities for legislation, McConnell would still have a filibuster to contend with. And even if you ignore that obstacle, the political play is a known loser. Republicans controlled both the House and Senate when they shut down the government in 1995, and they lost the fight. Bill Clinton was a bit more popular at the time than Obama is now, but that’s not really what drove the dynamic. It’s just a losing ask to condition basic government services on weakening pollution restrictions or cutting health care spending or whatever. McConnell might be able to extract modest concessions in an appropriations tussle, but nothing big, and nothing along the lines of what conservative members will expect. 

McConnell knows this. After the government shutdown last year, he vowed it wouldn’t happen again under his watch. “There’s no education in the second kick of a mule,” he liked telling reporters. But he also needs to juice conservative voter turnout in his own election. And assuming he clears that hurdle, he also needs to be elected majority leader. That’s probably the thinking behind his remarks. But he set them free in a political environment he doesn’t fully control. If he becomes majority leader next year, he won’t be able to wrest them back. He just made the job he’s gunning for that much harder.