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Bill Straub: Even the ‘best bad idea’ won’t get the Republicans out the hole Trump has dug for them

Some years ago, Steve Martin (yeah, the guy with the banjo), then an up-and-coming standup comic, introduced a routine and produced an album he titled “Let’s Get Small.”

“I like to get small,’’ Martin would tell his always enthusiastic audience. “It’s a wild, wild drug.”

Well, apparently Senate Republican Leader Mitch “Root-‘n-Branch’’ McConnell has uncovered Martin’s stash. The Louisville lawmaker has devolved into the incredible shrinking man ever since President Trump (gag) the Chang to his Eng, opted to shut down a huge portion of the federal government in an effort to convince Congress to acquiesce to the construction of some sort of wall along the southern border.

While Trump knocks heads with Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer, of New York, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, over his proposed boondoggle, McConnell, who has always fancied himself the prince of the city when it comes to legislative wrangling, has taken a seat on the bench, emerging only to say, predictably, that whatever his boy Donny wants, Donny ought to get.

“And until Democrats prioritize the public interest ahead of political spite, our border will not be secured and the federal government will remain partially closed,’’ McConnell said after Trump took to television to plead his case to the public on Tuesday night. “I cannot urge my Democratic friends more strongly to get past this purely partisan spite, rediscover their own past positions on border security, and negotiate a fair solution with the president to secure our nation and re-open all of the federal government.”

The key phrase here in this statement is “negotiate a fair solution with the president,” which is ol’ Root-‘n-Branch’s way of saying, “Good luck, suckers, I’m taking a powder.”

McConnell’s approach to the ongoing shutdown has proved curious for any number of reasons, especially for a legislative leader who considers himself one of history’s great deal makers. To this point, his involvement has been limited to declaring that the Senate will only vote for a spending bill that Trump will sign, which essentially means one that includes $5.7 billion for his precious wall to keep brown people from crossing into the U.S.

Other than that, this modern Henry Clay maintains there is no role for him to play in arriving at an agreement. He remains relatively quiet when the two factions meet face-to-face and he even failed to appear at a press briefing Trump held after one useless session, with his office maintaining he was unaware of the encounter, a claim that at least seems unlikely.

“Why is Leader McConnell shuffling off to the sidelines, pointing his fingers at everyone else and saying he won’t be involved?” Schumer asked rhetorically during a Senate floor speech. The answer he said, is “because he realizes this president, President Trump, is erratic, unreliable and sometimes even irrational.”

Actually, it’s that and more. From all outward indications, McConnell is, as Roy Orbison famously crooned, runnin’ scared. Despite his self-congratulatory claims of possessing a magic legislative touch, ol’ Root-‘n-Branch has absolutely no idea how to climb out of the hole Trump has dug for him and his party.

The movie Argo, you’ll recall, centered on the “best bad idea’’ for releasing hostages from Iran. Here, with Trump involved, McConnell has determined there is no best bad idea so he’s going to let it lay there like a dead skunk in the middle of the road.

Poll after poll establishes that the public is blaming Trump and his fellow Republicans for the shutdown of about one-quarter of the federal government and the furlough of approximately 400,000 federal workers who won’t be receiving paychecks soon because of a president’s obstinance. A Reuters poll released Tuesday showed that a growing number is pointing a finger at the nation’s poor excuse for a president — 51 percent of adults surveyed believe Trump “deserves most of the blame.” Only 32 percent cite congressional Democrats.

McConnell has in the past acknowledged that shutdowns are not helpful to the political party in power and they are to be avoided at all costs. But in this case, it appears his lone viable option is to cross a volatile president of his own party, something he is wont to do considering his history as a legislator who consistently places party over country.

Remember, McConnell was led to believe that a stopgap spending bill had been worked out to keep the entirety of the federal government open into February to see if something on the Trump wall in the interim. The Senate, under his guidance, even adopted the continuing resolution to achieve that end with the understanding that Trump would sign it.

But the usurper in the White House had a change of heart when his buddies on right-wing talk shows criticized the move. He reneged, leaving McConnell and Republicans lawmakers with no way out. In a way the entire Trump doublecross is reminiscent of the scene in Animal House where, after some Delta members wrecked his brother’s car, Otter tells Flounder, “You —— up. You trusted us. Hey, make the best of it.”

But there are no lemons for McConnell to make lemonade. Democrats offered a deal to fund all of the shuttered agencies save for the Department of Homeland Security, which would have jurisdiction over any proposed wall, through the end of the fiscal year and reopen DHS to Feb.8 in hopes of providing time to negotiate a deal. Trump threatened a veto and McConnell echoed his new BFF, refusing to offer any legislation that fails to carry the president’s imprimatur even though a growing number of his GOP colleagues have said it’s time to get the deed done.

Now it appears the Democratic-controlled House is going to attempt to pass agency funding bills one-by-one and toss them into McConnell’s lap, daring him to ignore a lifeline to open the closed portions of the government. McConnell, fearing the wrath of the president, is likely to decline. But in doing so he will end any debate regarding who is responsible for the shutdown.

To McConnell, it’s a power play, and the fact that the nation and 400,000 federal workers and their families will have to suffer is secondary. Republicans hold a 53-47 advantage in the Senate – two independents side with the Democrats – and he is wary about any move that could swing the 2020 elections. A vote for Republicans to reopen the government, thus defying Trump, could result in a primary challenge to vulnerable GOP incumbents. A vote against reopening the government, therefore siding with Trump, could result in all sorts of electoral mischief ol’ Root-‘n-Branch would like to avoid, since he himself intends to seek a seventh term two years hence.

So no vote at all is the ticket, at least until some breakthrough composed by someone else is uncovered, allowing Mitch to happily keep his hands clean. One problem – Trump is considering declaring an emergency under Section 5 of the National Emergencies Act of 1976, which theoretically could allow him to build a wall without congressional approval.

The problem there is, under the law, Congress is granted 15 days to repudiate the president’s action. The House would almost certainly do so. Then the hot potato is thrown in Mitch’s direction yet again. Does he cross Trump, enraging Trumpsters everywhere as well as other dedicated members of the GOP base (old white guys) or does he head in the other direction, raising the ire of a public opposed to the wall and effectively diminishing the power of the legislative branch that is supposed to make such decisions with the power of the purse.

Whatever, don’t count on McConnell to do the right thing.

KyForward’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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