WASHINGTON — When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell met with President Joe Biden last month, he gave him an ultimatum: back off your demands for equal military and domestic spending, or there will be no government funding deal.
“From our perspective, you’ve already lavished $700 billion on your domestic priorities, and we’re not going to pay you a bonus to meet the country’s defence needs,” McConnell told NBC News in a wide-ranging interview Wednesday in his Capitol office.
His strategy worked. Democrats backed down after years of successfully demanding “parity” between the two pots, accepting $858 billion in Pentagon funding and $772.5 billion in domestic funding.
“I never wavered on that. Never moved an inch. So, yeah, I’m proud of it,” McConnell said, calling it a “extremely important” victory for conservatives. He stated that they will no longer “pay a ransom on the domestic side” in order to secure large amounts of military spending.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., expressed “disappointment” with the unequal spending levels, but argued that the Kentucky Republican was using his leverage.
“He’s in a bargaining position; he’s taking advantage,” Durbin said.
McConnell has had a difficult two years. In a major upset on the eve of Jan. 6, he lost his majority. He watched as a Democratic Congress spent trillions of dollars on party-line legislation despite his vehement opposition. He had a contentious feud with former President Donald Trump. His party underperformed in the 2022 election, relegating him to the minority for another two years.
In the final days of the Democratic trifecta, a reflective McConnell is celebrating two things: saving the filibuster against a progressive campaign to abolish it and resetting the table on military spending.
The massive bill passed the Senate on Thursday and now heads to the House for a vote before Biden can sign it into law.
It could pave the way for future negotiations, when the GOP is sure to demand more spending on defence and less on education, health care, Pell Grants, and other domestic items. Democrats have many reasons to be pleased with the new bill, but the failure to meet the “parity” standard has been a source of concern.
“I don’t like it,” Durbin said. But, with Republicans poised to take over the House in weeks and rip up the entire agreement, he said, “we’re in a pretty desperate situation.”
Of course, McConnell’s leverage was only possible because of the filibuster, the Senate’s 60-vote rule for passing most legislation. When he saw Democrats campaigning on ending the filibuster — and winning — he knew it would be targeted. A coalition of party insiders and progressive groups was plotting to quickly kill the rule and open the door to passing major legislation by majority vote.
So McConnell began the new session with an aggressive move: he demanded that newly minted Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer promise to protect the filibuster, or he would prevent Democrats from taking control of committees under the new 50-50 setup.
Democrats were enraged by the move. Schumer refused. However, it prompted Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., to issue categorical statements stating that they would not abolish the filibuster.
“I actually walked the Senate organisation in the beginning until we had public statements from both Sinema and Manchin indicating they wouldn’t do that,” McConnell explained.
The filibuster was one of the most important decisions made by the 117th Congress. It was responsible for the demise of several progressive ideas, including raising the minimum wage, enacting a federal voting rights law, the DREAM Act, and funding for child care.
It made Senate Republicans equal partners in negotiating deals on infrastructure, the CHIPS and Science Act, and a modest measure to toughen gun laws, all of which McConnell encouraged and supported.
His decision to work with Democrats drew harsh criticism from the GOP’s right wing, deepening his feud with Trump, who accused him of being too compromising with the opposition party. McConnell disagrees, claiming that the bills are all in the “best interests of the country.”
But McConnell saw another advantage to playing ball.
He claimed that those bipartisan victories “may have reassured Manchin and Sinema” that they didn’t need to nuke the filibuster to get things done.
Senator Kevin Cramer, R-North Dakota, stated that “Mitch’s handling of the sensitivity of the loss of the filibuster goes somewhat unnoticed” on and off Capitol Hill. “Conservatives can complain about certain things that Democrats have done to us,” he said. “Mitch’s role in facilitating peaceful legislation has prevented very, very hostile legislation from occurring.”
Another McConnell-aligned Senate Republican stated that one of his motivations in the bipartisan deals was to reclaim suburban and college-educated voters who had shifted to Democrats.
Democrats claim McConnell was pushing for deals because of the Democratic Party’s growing support to end the filibuster in recent years.
“I certainly think the growing unity of the Democratic caucus around the filibuster likely put pressure on the Senate to open the aperture of compromise,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.
McConnell has a well-known warm relationship with Sinema, who recently switched from Democrat to independent. When asked if he advised her to do so, McConnell said, “We talk a lot, and she’s a genuine independent… I wasn’t surprised when she changed her name and re-registered in Arizona.”
In the interview, McConnell also discussed the next few years of working with a Republican-controlled House, which will likely be led by Rep. Kevin McCarthy if he can secure the votes he needs.
“I have a really good relationship with McCarthy, but he’s got a difficult hand to play,” McConnell said. “We all want him to succeed and hope he does.”
He also reflected on the debt ceiling agreement he reached with Democrats last year and issued a call to the next Congress.
“At the risk of sounding patriotic, you simply cannot have the country default. “It just can’t happen,” McConnell said. “And we always have a lot of anxiety about that, especially on the Republican side. But, at the end of the day, there has to be a way forward — and I did find one.”