George W. Bush

Historically Significant Leaders Guide Senate, House

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have already cemented their congressional legacies. Now those legacies may be tested as they face another deadline to forge a border security compromise that can pass Congress and President Trump will accept, avoiding another potential government shutdown.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have already cemented their congressional legacies. Now those legacies may be tested as they face another deadline to forge a border security compromise that can pass Congress and President Trump will accept, avoiding another potential government shutdown.

We may be witnessing historically significant congressional leaders in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. What they do next in response to continuing demands by President Trump to fund his controversial border wall may affect their legacies.

History-making by McConnell, the Republican, and Pelosi, the Democrat, is as different as night-and-day and as the Senate and the House. Pelosi is known for muscling major legislation on health care and consumer protection through Congress. McConnell’s legacy is laying the groundwork for a GOP agenda outside Congress in the scores of conservative judges he has ushered through the Senate. 

The New York Times Magazine featured McConnell over the weekend, noting he recognized the parliamentary obstacles in the Senate to passing any kind of major legislation, so he turned his focus on federal judgeships. He has steered through two new Supreme Court justices and 83 lower-court judges. And he famously blocked the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland during President Obama’s last year in office.

“When Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court on October 6, after McConnell played a key role in ushering him through a month of arguments over and investigations into allegations of sexual assault, the scope of the majority leader’s influence on American governance snapped into focus.”

A similar epiphany occurred when Pelosi stared down Trump over his demand for funding for his border wall that led to a record-shattering five-week partial federal government shutdown. Pelosi was hailed by supporters and critics alike as the most powerful female elected official in America.

McConnell is following in the tracks of legendary Senate majority leaders such as Lyndon Johnson, who passed the first modern-day civil rights bills in 1957 and 1960 and Mike Mansfield, the longest-serving majority leader who steered through the more famous Voting Rights and Civil Rights legislation, as well creation of Medicare and Medicaid as part of Johnson’s Great Society.

While McConnell admires Mansfield, NYT magazine says, “McConnell is the first majority leader whose career has been built on the assumption that the Senate could produce the great legislative works of his predecessors is a thing of the past.” 

He is partially responsible for his own view. As minority leader and then majority leader during the Obama presidency, McConnell was a fortress of obstruction. Or as NYT Magazine described it, “He fashioned himself as the essential impediment to Obama’s vision of a sequel to the Great Society, using tactics that were once the province of Senate factions as a strategic blueprint for the entire Republican caucus.” 

McConnell admits to being an obstructionist. “Far be it from me to complain about obstruction when I’ve been involved in it,” he said. McConnell justifies his obstruction by adding, “There was a point to it.”

His obstruction stretched beyond Obama-backed legislation to include blocking a pre-2016 election warning about Russian interference. Armed with US intelligence about Russian meddling, Obama said he would only release the information if all four of the Senate and House caucus leaders agreed to avoid any appearance of politicizing the intelligence data. House Speaker Paul Ryan, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer agreed. McConnell said no. 

McConnell may seem an unlikely obstructionist-in-chief. Not especially photogenic or charismatic, McConnell has used “this blankness to his advantage, made it a carrier for designs greater than himself.” NYT Magazine reports McConnell was willing to take positions viewed as politically distasteful such as opposing campaign finance reform with a “shrugging willingness to play a villain when a villain was required.”

Pelosi is a more electric figure. She is the first woman elected House Speaker, the first woman to lead a party in Congress and the first Speaker to lose, then win back the position since Sam Rayburn in 1955. Her leadership in the 2018 midterm election resulted in a record-setting number of women winning election to Congress. All that cements her legacy as a historical congressional figure.

She is best known – and most often demonized – by her leadership in passing the Affordable Care Act without a single Republican vote. A Republican congressional observed her effort “as masterful a piece of legislating as I have ever seen.”

Her relentless drive to push a progressive agenda, which included a climate change bill, gets part of the blame for the GOP congressional takeover in the 2010 midterm election. 

Pelosi became Speaker in 2007 toward the end of President George W. Bush’s second term and growing public frustration with the Iraq war, which she opposed, and deepening economic recession. In the face of potential economic collapse, Pelosi mustered the needed votes for a Wall Street bailout plan in the House. 

Her steadfast opposition has posed an insurmountable obstacle, at least so far, to Trump’s border wall. Her hardball tactic of denying Trump a congressional stage during the prolonged government shutdown underscored her image as a “force of nature.” Or as Pelosi herself observed about Trump that he may unfamiliar dealing with “women in power.” [After the shutdown ended, Pelosi extended an invitation to Trump to give his State of the Union speech on February 5.]

Congress faces a three-week deadline to resolve the border security issue. Trump has resumed his demand for $5.7 for the border wall, threatening to block any legislation without it and declaring a national emergency. 

There is a bipartisan consensus in the congressional shadows that would agree to $5.7 billion or more for border technology, additional border agents, modernized ports of entry and increased Coast Guard drug interdictions. A sliver of money might even be included for physical barriers where appropriate, but not the full-fledged border wall Trump wants. 

That presages another showdown and potential shutdown, even though the one that just ended cost the nation an estimated $11 billion in lost economic activity and $3 billion in federal revenue, not to mention stress and loss of morale for federal workers who went without pay for a month. 

The odds in the showdown may be in favor of Pelosi whose approval rate has soared while Trump’s have sagged.

This time around, the fate of border security and heading off another punishing government shutdown may revolve around the historically significant figures who lead the Senate and the House. It could boil down to a battle between a skilled obstructionist and an equally skilled legislative tactician with their legacies on the line. Or, it could blossom improbably into a bicameral, bipartisan push-back for a troubled President. That certainly would be history-making for both.


The Longest Wait

Loretta Lynch will become the first African-American women to be the U.S. attorney general, but only after setting a contemporary record for her delayed confirmation, which has stalled because of politics. Photo by  United States Mission Geneva .

Loretta Lynch will become the first African-American women to be the U.S. attorney general, but only after setting a contemporary record for her delayed confirmation, which has stalled because of politics. Photo by United States Mission Geneva.

Much of what goes on in the Capitol is opaque to most Americans, including the lengthy delay in confirming a presidential cabinet nominee.

Loretta Lynch is close to becoming a record. President Obama's choice to become the next attorney general − and the first African American woman to hold the job is approaching the 147-day record of Togo West, a President Clinton appointee for Veterans Affairs. Republicans delayed West's confirmation because of concerns Clinton gave Arlington Cemetery plots to campaign donor, allegations that were later called unfounded.

John Bryson, Obama's nominee for Commerce secretary, stalled for 142 days. Republicans held up his conformation until free-trade deals were passed.

Lynch is in limbo because Republicans, who control the Senate, are using her confirmation as political leverage to pass an anti-abortion provision as part of a human trafficking bill that enjoys bipartisan support. Some Democrats have charged that Lynch, a Harvard law graduate with impeccable prosecutorial credentials, has been left waiting in the wings for 137 days so far because she is black. Some Republicans were enraged because she defended Obama's executive order on immigration.

The Washington Post assembled a chart showing the longest confirmation delays over the last three presidencies. It shows that the average confirmation time for Obama appointees is 56 days, compared to 44 days under President George W. Bush and Clinton.

Lynch is likely to be confirmed at some point. Her delayed approval is also likely to deepen partisan feelings that already run pretty deep. Her appointment and confirmation is a case study on how political parties wrestle for advantage, using whatever holds they can.

Related Link: Which Clinton, Bush or Obama Cabinet nominee waited longest to be confirmed? Soon it will be Loretta Lynch.

Lewinsky Scandal Tipped Presidential Approval Ratings

The spike in partisan presidential approval ratings can be traced to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

The spike in partisan presidential approval ratings can be traced to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

President Obama's approval ratings have continued to droop under the weight of criticism about his handling of the Ebola crisis as he has steadfastly refused, as critics have demanded, to close the U.S. border to anyone traveling from West Africa.

Curiously, Monica Lewinsky, now in her 40s, has resurfaced to talk about her love affair with President Bill Clinton. A Washington Post political blogger sees a connection.

Presidential approval ratings have taken on a partisan flavor, just as other aspects of political life. Gallup generated data showing the most polarized viewpoints of Presidents over the last 50 years have occurred since 2000 with the contested election of George W. Bush.

The gaps between Republicans and Democrats is astounding. Approval ratings for Obama in 2012-2013 and for Bush in 2004-2005 showed a 76 percentage point spread among partisans.

President Bill Clinton's approval rating in 1996-1997 was 85 percent by Democrats, but only 23 percent by Republicans — a 62 percentage-point spread.

President Ronald Reagan's approval rating in 1984-1985 was 89 percent by Republicans and 29 percent by Democrats — a 60 percentage-point spread.

Chris Cillizza, writing "The Fix" political blog in The Washington Post, says the Clinton scandal involving Monica Lewinsky was what cemented polarized perspectives on Presidents.

"Democrats came to view the whole Lewinsky saga as a personal foible that, while awful for the Clintons, meant nothing as to whether or not Bill Clinton was — or could be — and effective President," Cillizza wrote. "Republicans, on the other hand, viewed Clinton's initial lies about the relationship as fundamentally disqualifying."

"There's no question that the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal – and by that I mean the whole thing, including how the media covered it, how politicians reacted to it and how technology turned it into a worldwide sensation — was a pivot point in American politics, a time when things changed and haven't changed back."

Spending Big Money to Fight Big-Money Contributions

Most political action committee solicitations don't start with "Embrace the irony," but the crowd-funded Mayday Super PAC is different. It is spending big sums to rail against big-money Super PACs. 

The brainchild of liberals, big donors and Republican strategists, the Mayday PAC is an attempt to get the issue of big money in politics on the table as a discussion topic in the upcoming general election and beyond. 

This isn't civil disobedience to fight injustice. This is an all-out attempt to spend money to fight money. Think of it as the anti-Koch brothers PAC.

The Mayday ad campaign is scheduled to launch next week in Iowa and New Hampshire. The campaign in New Hampshire will support Jim Rubens, a former GOP state senator, in a Republican primary against transplanted former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown in the Granite State's upcoming GOP primary. In Iowa, Mayday is backing Staci Appel, a Democrat, for an open congressional seat. 

Mayday is aligned with another new organization, Every Voice, that will focus on state races, with the same overall message, but with a different emphasis on raising money at the grassroots level from small donors to offset big-donor giving.

When Immigration and Sex Trafficking Law Meet

While politicians are finger-pointing, thousands of unaccompanied children are pouring into the United States to seek asylum.

President Obama is blamed for lax border enforcement and former President George W. Bush is fingered for signing a bipartisan-backed bill in 2008 designed to give legal protections in the United States to children trying to escape sex trafficking in their home countries, excluding Mexico and Canada.

The flood of unattended children showing up at the nation's doorstep coincides with a widespread political belief that comprehensive immigration reform is dead in this Congress, and maybe even longer. A Democratically controlled Senate, which sent a bipartisan immigration bill to the House, isn't likely to go for a bill that merely tinkers with immigration issues. 

So the Obama administration faces the task of what to do with children with legal rights, but not legal residency status. One community already has balked at having children bused to temporary housing there. And Obama is asking Congress for $4 billion for housing and more judges and courtrooms to process the children who risked their lives coming here. 

It is an ugly scene, no matter how you look at it. It also appears to be coagulating quickly into another partisan battlefront, which could obscure the humanitarian issues involved. The children coming here are clearly in harm's way in their Central American home countries. Their life prospects look pretty dim if they are returned to sender.

Congressional Republicans, who blame Obama for the surge, appear to favor a change making it easier to send back the children. But not all Republicans, including many in the evangelical community, are on board with that idea. Those who played a key role in passing the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act disagree that it should be changed. They say the law is doing what it was intended to do — protect children.