Sen. Chuck Schumer got downright expansive when asked about Sen. Mitch McConnell’s health after the Kentucky Republican’s second frozen moment in front of TV cameras last week.
“I’m very happy to see McConnell back,” Schumer, the New York Democrat and Majority Leader, told reporters on Wednesday.
It was more than just good wishes for a Senate colleague facing health issues. Although Mr. McConnell, 81, a longtime Republican leader, has been one of the Democrats’ main enemies in Congress for decades, they happen to share some common interests right now, with a looming government shutdown and upcoming clashes over aid to Ukraine and disaster recovery spending. and a possible impeachment of President Biden.
So despite their often hostile history of Mr McConnell, some Democrats privately admit they are worried about his abrupt departure. They are counting on Mr. McConnell’s skills as a legislative tactician, his political stature and his general craftiness to help them navigate the showdown in Congress as they face a season of clashes with House Republicans. led by the most far-right element of their party.
“He’s the devil they know and a very pragmatic leader,” Sen. Kevin Cramer, a Republican from North Dakota, said of Mr. McConnell and Senate Democrats. “And there is no one more astute.”
Mr. McConnell is a strong supporter of maintaining financial aid to Ukraine despite growing reservations within his own party, and he has the clout and track record to retain a majority of his fellow Senate Republicans. He has also made it very clear that he wants to avoid a government shutdown and shares the view of Senate Democrats that federal spending needs to be higher than what House Republicans are seeking. And he suggested that launching impeachment proceedings against Mr Biden was not a good idea.
Democrats who often rip Mr. McConnell are refraining from doing so at this time.
“There are extremes, mostly in the House, that worry me, but I think he speaks for the dominant Republican party on most issues,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Democrat #2, who had a long conversation. with Mr. McConnell about his medical condition when the Senate reconvened on Tuesday after a long summer break. “He can play an important role within his own ranks in helping us find a bipartisan solution to our challenges. »
Mr Biden, who has a proven track record of negotiating with Mr McConnell, was among the first to contact the Republican leader last week after the Kentucky episode and later publicly offered assurances about his condition. Biden White House officials view Mr. McConnell as someone they can rely on to avert a crisis, even if he can hold his cards until the last possible second.
This is a sensitive situation for both parties. Mr. McConnell is not particularly keen on being caught working hand in hand with the Democrats, further infuriating his far-right critics, who already see him as a founding member of the swamp and what some of them call the “one-party” mentality within the party. Washington. And Democrats don’t want to appear to be getting close to Mr. McConnell after dealing with him in a long series of toxic confrontations, such as when he blocked President Barack Obama from taking a seat on the Supreme Court. for a year, keeping it open. until it can be filled by Donald J. Trump.
They know that other disagreements await them.
A Democrat has said privately that they are hardly “buddies” with their usual enemy. Yet it is recognized that on some of the big issues they face, he can be more of an ally than a hindrance. Mr Schumer said on Wednesday that “we work well together”.
“On some things, leader McConnell and I vehemently disagree,” Schumer said. “On others, we agree and are working together to achieve that.”
On Wednesday, Mr McConnell lobbied, publicly and privately, for $24 billion in new aid for Ukraine, while admitting there was “a difference of opinion within my party” on the issue. money requested by the Biden administration. In an attempt to bolster his case, he pointed out that a lot of the money is spent in the US on ammunition and other supplies, and that Ukraine is leading the fight so the Americans don’t have to. . As Mitch McConnell, he took time to criticize the administration for its policy in Ukraine, but he said he would stick with the president.
“I think he could have done it with more skill, but he supports this effort, and I intend to continue to support him, and I hope the majority of my colleagues feel the same.” , Mr. McConnell said.
McConnell also took the opportunity Thursday to slam one of the administration’s and congressional Democrats’ most prized new initiatives — the negotiation of lower Medicare prescription drug prices — calling it a “prescription drug socialism,” a reminder that he hardly agrees with everything, or even most things, coming from the White House.
What Mr. McConnell has always agreed with, even if a growing part of his party has come to despise him in recent years, is the stable functioning of the federal government.
In recent weeks, he has strongly supported the bipartisan work of the Senate Appropriations Committee to fund government agencies at the level agreed to in Mr. Biden’s agreement with Chairman Kevin McCarthy to suspend the debt ceiling. He made it clear that the lower levels sought by House Republicans would not be accepted in the Senate. Even though some far-right members of the House are suggesting that a government shutdown after funds run out on September 30 wouldn’t be a big deal, Mr McConnell didn’t get it.
“Congress needs to meet our country’s most urgent needs with timely appropriations, and we need to keep the lights on on October 1,” he said earlier this week.
Mr. McConnell sought to settle the scrutiny of his health this week by releasing a letter from the Capitol doctor saying he had not suffered a stroke or seizure during his episodes. He pledged on Wednesday to remain leader until at least next year and to fulfill his senatorial term ending in 2026.
Still, a change in leadership would probably not mean a major immediate shift in political direction. His most likely successors share his general views on Ukraine and other spending issues and are unlikely to stray far. But they would not have the experience of navigating the politically dangerous currents that lie ahead.
This is not the time for on-the-job training, said one lawmaker.