Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, is a tough and wily operator. But he is opposed by an equally relentless and worthy adversary: Mitch McConnell.
Nobody in recent memory has argued so frequently and so passionately against himself as the Kentucky Republican. Oyez, oyez, oyez: Let us hear the case of McConnell v. McConnell.
In November, magnanimous McConnell spoke of restraint: “I think it’s always a mistake to misread your mandate, and frequently new majorities think it’s going to be forever. … We’ve been given a temporary lease on power, if you will.”
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That was wise. Republicans won the White House and both chambers of Congress, but the president-elect lost the popular vote by almost 3 million and Republicans lost seats in Congress.
Yet, two months later, McConnell is treating his “temporary lease on power” as if it were St. Edward’s Crown.
He is hurrying through a repeal of Obamacare – using a procedure he once decried as a “power grab” – before Republicans come up with an alternative. He’s preparing to use the same technique to overhaul the tax code. He is pushing ahead with nine confirmation hearings this week, five on Wednesday alone, the same day the Senate is scheduled to hold dozens of budget votes and President-elect Donald Trump planned a news conference. This will help protect the nominees from public scrutiny – even though most have not yet received the required vetting.
In politics, where you stand often depends on where you sit. If your party doesn’t control the Senate, for example, you’re more likely to value the filibuster. But McConnell’s principles are particularly situational.
Back in 2009, when he was minority leader, McConnell insisted, among other things, that nominees shouldn’t get hearings unless “the Office of Government Ethics letter is complete and submitted to the committee in time for review and prior to a committee hearing.”
Now, the OGE director warns that the GOP is rushing through “several nominees who have not completed the ethics review process,” leaving some “with potentially unknown or unresolved ethics issues.” The director noted that this violates the law.
But McConnell has reversed McConnell. “All of these little procedural complaints are related to their frustration in having not only lost the White House but having lost the Senate,” he explained Sunday on CBS. He suggested “we need to sort of grow up here.”
Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, illustrated McConnell’s reversal by sending him on Monday the same letter McConnell sent Democratic leader Harry Reid in 2009 demanding complete ethics reviews before hearings. Schumer crossed out “Harry” in the salutation and substituted “Mitch.”
Back in 2010, McConnell argued that using the budget process of “reconciliation” to pass Obamacare with a 50-vote majority in the Senate rather than a 60-vote supermajority “would be one of the most brazen single-party power grabs in legislative history.”
So what is McConnell doing now? Using reconciliation to eliminate Obamacare with a 50-vote majority.
Back in 2007, McConnell said that “we can stipulate” that “in the Senate it takes 60 votes on controversial matters.”
Now McConnell has signed on to using the same 50-vote maneuver to enact tax reform.
Back in 2011, McConnell proudly declared that “I voted for the Ryan budget.” But in 2014, when his opponent tried to tie him to the Paul Ryan budget cuts, McConnell’s campaign said that “there is no way to speculate” whether McConnell supported the Ryan budget in 2011.
A year ago, McConnell said he would block consideration of President Barack Obama’s nominee to fill a Supreme Court vacancy “until we have a new president.”
Now, when Democrats floated the (improbable) notion that they wouldn’t act on President Trump’s nominee to the same seat, McConnell said that is “something the American people simply will not tolerate.”
McConnell said his position against filling the vacancy last year was so that “the American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice.”
He said the opposite in a years-ago law-review article, when he argued that making “purely political decisions” in considering a Supreme Court nominee isn’t “an acceptable practice.”
In a typical McConnell speech in 2012, he argued that “the unique role of the Senate has been to protect the voice of the minority.”
Now he’s facing pressure from fellow Republicans to eliminate the filibuster, one of the main protections of minority rights in the Senate.
It’s too soon to say who will win this battle, but it promises to be another epic showdown between McConnell and McConnell.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.