Mitch McConnell

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., joined by Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), John Thune (R-S.D.) and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, talks to the media on Tuesday. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

By Paul Kane
February 13, 2015 at 3:00 AM

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, less than six weeks into unified GOP rule on Capitol Hill, is on the verge of seeing his most adamant pledge go up in smoke.

“Let me make it clear: There will be no government shutdowns,” McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a victory-lap news conference the day after he won reelection and a Republican rout gave his party the Senate majority.

On Thursday, the Senate adjourned for a 10-day break that will leave just a few workdays before the Feb. 27 deadline to secure funding for the Department of Homeland Security amid a smoldering fight over President Obama’s executive orders on immigration.

Conservatives are adamant that the security agency should be funded only if the enabling legislation includes language that overrules Obama’s actions preventing the deportation of millions of illegal immigrants. But Senate Democrats, even the few who oppose Obama’s moves, have blocked the House-passed legislation with repeated filibusters.

That has left McConnell trapped inside a legislative box that he had vowed to avoid — and one that for the previous four years his close ally, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), frequently wandered into without an exit strategy.

On Tuesday, McConnell declared the Senate stuck, but Boehner has shown no willingness to help out. Despite pleas from the Senate GOP, Boehner has indicated that he has no interest in passing new legislation through the House that could draw Democratic support in the Senate. “The House has done its job,” Boehner told reporters Thursday. “We’ve spoken. And now it’s up to the Senate to do their job.”

A shutdown of one agency would not cause nearly the same level of disruptions as the October 2013 shutdown of the federal government, a period in which Republicans tried to force Obama to accept a funding plan that would have gutted his landmark health-care law. Some McConnell advisers suggest that the brief lapse in funding for one federal agency would not break his no-shutdowns promise.

But that 2013 shutdown cratered public support for Republicans, leaving them in a hole that took them almost a year to recover from, and McConnell has been adamant about not repeating the same mistake.

In an interview just before he formally took over as majority leader, McConnell declared that his biggest political goal was a productive governance that was “not scary” to the public. He said his aim was to boost the Republican 2016 presidential nominee’s chances, and some Republicans fear that Democrats would win a DHS-shutdown fight by portraying the GOP majority as recklessly endangering national security over a political fight with Obama.

“I don’t think a shutdown of the department whose purpose is to secure our homeland is a good idea for anybody,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the most outspoken critic of the 2013 strategy that led to a 16-day shutdown, said Thursday.

McConnell made no public mention of the DHS showdown Thursday, sticking to his comments earlier in the week that Boehner will have to make the next move. “I think it’s clear we can’t go forward in the Senate unless you all have heard something I haven’t. And so the next move, obviously, is up to the House,” McConnell said Tuesday.

The year-end funding showdown in December was built around the principle of avoiding this kind of brinkmanship, with Boehner and McConnell scuttling the possibility of a broad shutdown by passing 11 of the 12 annual bills that fund the federal agencies.

Left out was the DHS portion, because of unrest over the executive action Obama was on the verge of taking to defer deportations of millions of illegal immigrants. DHS, the agency in charge of immigration and border policy, was given a short-term extension of funds until next Friday, buying time for McConnell and Boehner to come up with an escape plan — one that has yet to appear.

“I have every confidence we will meet the deadline, one way or the other,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), McConnell’s top lieutenant on the leadership team. “Just how, I can’t tell you right this minute.”

Democrats said even a small-scale shutdown so soon on McConnell’s watch would hurt him politically. They believe it would set a precedent, with the far right wing pushing him around in the same manner that House conservatives have backed Boehner into corners he wanted to avoid.

“I think it’s a big problem,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the second-ranking Democrat in the chamber. “They said: We’re going to show we can run the trains on time and we are, quote, not scary. So if they start off by jeopardizing funding for the premier agency for America’s defense against terrorism — not a good start.”

There is still time to avert the shutdown, but it almost certainly involves some form of capitulation to the Democrats.

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