John Boehner’s Exit Will Cost Mitch McConnell a Kindred Spirit
WASHINGTON — More than a year before a difficult election cycle when he will be challenged to hold on to his hard-won Republican majority, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky may have already suffered his most significant loss — the pending departure of Speaker John A. Boehner.
Over the past six years, the two Republican leaders have developed a bond of the type that has not always existed between House and Senate leaders of the same party, figures who are often pulled in opposite directions.
More important, Mr. McConnell and Mr. Boehner agreed that engaging in the kind of brinkmanship that led to a government shutdown two years ago as well as the threat of a federal default on financial obligations was unacceptable as well as damaging to the Republican Party and its electoral prospects.
Now, faced with defending Republican seats in a presidential election year in such potentially difficult states as Florida, Illinois, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Mr. McConnell is convinced that Republicans must avoid disruptions that can make them look incapable of governing.
Given the legislative uncertainty in the aftermath of Mr. Boehner’s retirement, Mr. McConnell is hoping for one more act with the speaker, by pushing with Mr. Boehner to resolve some pressing issues before he exits at the end of October.
On Tuesday, Mr. McConnell said he and Mr. Boehner would like to begin talks with the White House on a budget agreement that would set spending levels for the next two years, through the end of President Obama’s term.
Spending is just one of the issues up in the air along with a need to increase the federal debt limit, an expiring highway program and the continuing push to renew the Export-Import Bank.
“We’re going to have to deal with all of these issues between now and December the 11th,” Mr. McConnell said. “How much of that could come together before Speaker Boehner leaves, I have no earthly idea.”
While Mr. McConnell wants to keep things on something of an even keel through November 2016, it is uncertain how Mr. Boehner’s replacement will feel. But it is very likely the incoming speaker will be compelled to go further than Mr. McConnell in challenging Mr. Obama and Congressional Democrats to satisfy the conservative forces that helped oust Mr. Boehner.
“Senator McConnell is going to be in an interesting position,” said Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action for America, a conservative group and the political arm of the Heritage Foundation that has been critical of both Mr. Boehner and Mr. McConnell. “Whoever the next speaker is going to be is more than likely to embrace a more adversarial position with the Senate.”
Mr. Boehner’s decision to step aside will also focus more of the conservative fire on Mr. McConnell, who made it his job in 2014 to prevent primary challengers backed by Tea Party groups from knocking off incumbents or challengers backed by Senate Republicans. Citizens for the Republic, a conservative activist group that includes former Attorney General Edwin Meese III on its board, on Tuesday urged Mr. McConnell to resign.
But Mr. McConnell does not face the internal dissent that Mr. Boehner has weathered for years; he is not leaving, nor do his colleagues want him to.
“Here, there are 54 of us, and we know each other so well and we have close personal relationships,” said Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona and a man who has clashed with Mr. McConnell in the past over issues including campaign financing. “There are only a very few senators, maybe one or two here, who don’t support him.”
One of them, Ted Cruz of Texas, is among four Republican senators running for president. Mr. Cruz has been openly critical of Mr. McConnell, and the role he and the others play as the first primaries approach will add another layer of complexity for the majority leader.
Overall, though, the mind-set and culture of the Senate is also much different from the House, as evidenced in the overwhelming vote on Monday to advance a stopgap spending bill without language to end federal financing for Planned Parenthood, as demanded by House conservatives.
“It’s important for our party to demonstrate that we have the competence to govern,” said Senator Pat Toomey, the Pennsylvania Republican who has a tough re-election fight next year.
As they eyed the upheaval in the House, Senate Republicans said that Mr. Boehner’s departure may serve as a catharsis and allow some consensus to be found.
“I think the work to do is obvious and the challenges are well known,” said Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, who has served in leadership roles in the House and Senate. “I’m hoping that Speaker Boehner’s decision reminds everybody that when leaders aren’t allowed to lead, they decide to do something else.”
Whatever happens, Mr. McConnell is not likely to concede too much power to the House. He will probably push the Senate to take the legislative lead to keep the government churning as he did in by stepping in front of the House to advance a measure to keep the government open. The Senate is expected to approve that legislation Wednesday and quickly send it to the House for a vote before the fiscal year ends at midnight.
When Mr. Boehner found himself under siege in the past, Mr. McConnell was more than willing to act unilaterally. He has cooperated with Democrats, such as when he worked with Senator Barbara Boxer of California, to put together a bill to fund the nation’s highway system. And he has repeatedly reached out to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to hammer out fiscal compromises.
Mr. McConnell declined on Tuesday to offer House Republicans any guidance on replacing Mr. Boehner, though he acknowledged his familiarity with Representative Kevin McCarthy, the California Republican and majority leader considered the favorite to become the new speaker.
“I do know Kevin,” he said. “We have a good relationship.”
He noted that he and his fellow Senate Republican leaders would work with “whatever team the House ultimately selects.” But for Mr. McConnell, it will not be like working with John Boehner.