Now that House Speaker John Boehner has decided to quit Congress, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has become the new Public Enemy No. 1 of dissatisfied conservatives.
“Next guy in the cross hairs is probably going to be McConnell,” Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., texted Friday after Boehner announced that he’ll leave Congress.
Hard-line House Republicans, tea party groups, and several conservative interest groups viewed Boehner, R-Ohio, as an impediment to their agenda, and soft when it came to dealing with congressional Democrats and President Barack Obama.
They view McConnell, R-Ky., as too reluctant to amend long-standing Senate rules to muscle through conservative-backed legislation.
But, unlike Boehner, McConnell isn’t going isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. While there’s anger toward the majority leader among several House Republicans, tea party organizations, conservative interest groups and voters, he has the strong backing of a Senate Republican caucus that has unanimously elected him majority and minority leader five times.
“As someone who’s in constant contact with our members, it’s clear leader McConnell has overwhelming support within the conference,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speaking Monday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” said “there’s no chance” of McConnell being ousted.
Several Senate aides and former aides noted that the Senate election process is much more formal and less free-wheeling than the House’s, an advantage for McConnell.
“It’s apples and oranges between the House and the Senate,” said Ron Bonjean, a former top aide to Sen. Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss. and Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. “The pressure is really going to be on the new speaker to perform well to satisfy conservatives. After leading them to a new majority, McConnell enjoys widespread support among Senate Republicans except for Senator Ted Cruz.
“McConnell may get more aggressive in tone and posture, but there would have to be serious strategic and tactical blunders during the budget endgame for senators to even think of a change.”
That won’t stop McConnell’s opponents from trying.
The Senate Conservatives Fund, which has backed tea party candidates in GOP primaries, railed against McConnell on its website Monday. The site invites visitors to cast a no-confidence vote against the majority leader and get a free “Ditch Mitch” bumper sticker in return.
Ken Cuccinelli, the fund’s president, accused McConnell of abandoning conservative principles by allowing Loretta Lynch to be confirmed as attorney general, passing a highway bill, and setting up a vote on a short-term funding bill to avert a government shutdown.
The bill doesn’t contain a provision to deny Planned Parenthood federal money, a demand of congressional conservatives after the release of videos that allegedly show members of the organization discussing the sale of fetal tissue.
“His failure to fight for limited government has driven the Republican Party’s image into the dirt, face first with no hands to catch itself,” Cuccinelli wrote on the conservative fund’s website.
Then there’s Cruz.
The firebrand Texan has blasted McConnell’s leadership, calling him a liar. Monday, Cruz lashed out at Republican leadership that has “pre-emptively surrendered” on efforts to defund Planned Parenthood.
“Republican leadership has said we will never, ever, ever shut down the government, and suddenly President Obama understands the easy key to winning every battle,” Cruz said without specifically naming McConnell. “He simply has to utter the word ‘shutdown,’ and Republican leadership runs to the hills.”
McConnell supporters note that for all of Cruz’s talk, he hasn’t called for McConnell’s removal as majority leader. When asked Friday about ousting McConnell, Cruz replied: “That’s a question for leader McConnell and for the Republican conference.”
In the House, rebel Republicans who agitated for Boehner’s departure are cursing McConnell’s leadership and blasting the Senate’s rules.
They want McConnell to eliminate the 60-vote threshold required to move major legislation and replace it with majority-rules votes that would allow the chamber’s 54 Republicans to skirt filibusters by Democrats, who control 46 seats.
This month, 57 House Republicans signed a letter to McConnell urging him to employ the so-called nuclear option to eliminate Democratic filibusters and switch to majority votes when considering the Iran nuclear deal and other important legislation.
They wanted McConnell to follow former Senate Majority Harry Reid, D-Nev., who used the maneuver in November 2013 to allow majority-rules votes on most presidential nominees except those for the Supreme Court.
“We made a lot of promises to the American people if we took the Senate, that we would do certain things and those things have not been accomplished,” Salmon said Friday. “To be fair, most of those have not been accomplished because Mitch McConnell doesn’t have the intestinal fortitude that Harry Reid did to enact the nuclear option.”
Don Stewart, a McConnell spokesman, said McConnell won’t deploy the “nuclear option” because his caucus is against it.
“It’s not McConnell – it’s the entire conference,” Stewart said. “There’s not one vote for that. We have people not in this body calling for that. We deal with our own body over here.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., last week chided House Republicans who demand that the Senate rule change, urging them to “look to the future, to the possibility of a President Hillary Clinton and a Democratic majority in both houses and no Senate filibuster rule.”
“House Republicans are often frustrated because legislation that runs through the House like a freight train and slows down or grinds to a halt in the Senate,” Alexander said. “But that was the system of checks and balances that our founders created. And sometimes the shoe is on the other foot.”