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.