Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) hosted a press conference yesterday that generated quite a bit of attention, largely as a result of the Republican’s tone. The senator who mastered the art of obstruction – to a degree unseen in American history – raised eyebrows by talking about governing and the prospect of governmental progress in Washington.
I’d recommend skepticism, but putting that aside for now, McConnell also managed to make a little actual news at the Q&A.
“There will be no government shutdown or default on the national debt,” he said, making clear he doesn’t agree with some tea party-backed lawmakers who have supported one or the other in the past – or may want to in the future.
This was actually a fairly important comment from the GOP leader. As recently as 2011, McConnell acknowledged publicly his hopes of creating new debt-ceiling hostage crises going forward, with Republicans threatening to hurt Americans on purpose unless Democrats meet GOP demands. As of yesterday, the Kentucky Republican, now burdened with actual responsibilities, seemed to take default off the table.
Similarly, as recently as three months ago, McConnell boasted that he would use the threat of more government shutdowns as leverage to secure far-right policy concessions from the White House. And yet, here was McConnell effectively ruling out the possibility of another GOP shutdown.
The question then becomes whether anyone should actually believe what McConnell said.
My inclination is to believe he’s sincere, at least about this. McConnell has a wide variety of faults, but he’s always been quite candid about his legislative strategies and policymaking plans. He doesn’t want his new majority caucus to look like a bunch of radical loons, so it stands to reason McConnell actually wants to avoid shutdowns and debt-ceiling hostage crises.
And so, it’s easy to feel some relief following yesterday’s press conference. Even if Congress has literally no legislative accomplishments in 2015 and 2016 – a distinct possibility given what we’ve seen over the last four years – so long as GOP lawmakers keep the government’s lights on and protect the full faith and credit of the United States, the nation should be able to get by.
Yes, I’m admittedly setting the bar for success very low, but given events on Capitol Hill since 2011, I don’t think it’s unreasonable.
The other detail to keep in mind, though, is whether the decision is really up to McConnell. Longtime readers may recall what John Boehner said after the 2010 midterms, when he was poised to take over his institution as the majority party’s top dog.
Here’s Boehner in November 2010:
“I’ve made it pretty clear to [my caucus] that as we get into next year, it’s pretty clear that Congress is going to have to deal with [the debt limit]. We’re going to have to deal with it as adults. Whether we like it or not, the federal government has obligations and we have obligations on our part.”
And here’s Boehner in December 2010:
“We’ll have to find a way to help educate members and help people understand the serious problem that would exist if we didn’t do it.”
Here’s Boehner in January 2011:
“[A debt-ceiling default] would be a financial disaster, not only for us, but for the worldwide economy. I don’t think it’s a question that’s even on the table.”
And a few months later, Boehner, too weak to lead effectively, created a debt-ceiling crisis because House Republicans told him to, going back on everything he said after the midterms.
Many of those House Republicans who demanded the party threaten to hurt Americans on purpose are now Senate Republicans. Will Mitch McConnell be better able to control his party’s less-sane instincts? As of yesterday, he seemed confident. Four years ago at this time, Boehner seemed confident, too.