The events in El Paso and Dayton over the weekend give new meaning to the phrase the enemy within. The country is under siege from what law enforcement officials are calling domestic terrorism inspired by white supremacist ideology.
What to do? All roads lead to Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, who won’t allow debate on remedies for gun violence and refuses to take up gun-control legislation passed by the House to expand background checks.
He's feeling the heat these days. Hecklers taunted “Moscow Mitch” at a church picnic in Fancy Farm, Kentucky, and at his home, protesters turned up the heat with new monikers “Murder Turtle” and “Massacre Mitch.”
There are calls for McConnell to bring the Senate back from recess and confront this new form of terrorism with the same zeal that lawmakers brought after 9/11 to the al Qaeda-inspired threat.
Anyone who knows anything about McConnell knows that’s not happening.
At Team Mitch, it's been business as usual. Just hours after the El Paso shooting, the campaign tweeted a photo of a single tombstone bearing the name of McConnell’s Democratic challenger. Another tweet shows seven grinning young white men in “Team Mitch” T-shirts pawing a cardboard cutout of Rep. Ocasio-Cortez with the caption, “break me off a piece of that.”
He’s at home in Kentucky nursing a broken shoulder after tripping on his patio, but that isn’t what’s holding him back. “There’s no reason to come back into session if you’re not going to let people vote,” says John Lawrence, a veteran of Capitol Hill who served for eight years as Nancy Pelosi’s chief of staff.
In a tweet Monday morning, President Trump seemed to open the door to legislation calling for strong background checks paired with new immigration laws. But that went nowhere on Capitol Hill, or in Kentucky. “How long did it take him [Trump] to back off background checks?” asks Lawrence. “Forty-five minutes?”
How about pressuring and shaming McConnell into action? “He couldn’t care less,” says Lawrence. “There’s no pressure on him to do anything. He’s doing what the activist base of the Republican Party wants, and he’s doing what Trump wants.”
Republican lawmakers are not captives of the base, says Lawrence; they are the base.
The result is that with respect to popular legislation addressing immigration, legalizing the Dreamers (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), gun control background checks, and more recently election security, where 70 to 80 percent of the public has been saying there’s a consensus, there’s not a mechanism that can get around the McConnell blockade.
McConnell’s cudgel is the 60-vote filibuster, which Lawrence has come to conclude reluctantly has run its historic course. In today’s closely divided senate (53 to 47), those few votes give McConnell his power. There’s no way to get to 60 votes to force a floor vote on anything gun-related, so McConnell gets to operate with absolute immunity knowing a handful of GOP defectors joining the Democrats can’t reach that threshold, and most won’t even risk it.
At least two of the Democratic presidential contenders, Elizabeth Warren and Jay Inslee, are calling for the end of the filibuster, but it would require the Democrats to win the Senate, and right now that looks problematical.
Ira Shapiro, a former congressional staffer and author of Broken: Can the Senate Save Itself and the Country?, responded in an email that McConnell’s refusal to take up common-sense legislation to deal with gun violence is “not surprising. He is the Senate leader of a Republican Party which has been slavishly subservient to the NRA, one of its leading donors.”
Shapiro continued: “The self-proclaimed ‘grim reaper’ will change his position to allow the Senate to debate background checks and other gun control measures only if President Trump calls for it, a significant group of Senate Republicans press for it, or he concludes that failure to do so could jeopardize his reelection next year. The odds are against any of those things happening, ensuring that the future of gun control measures will depend on the outcome of the 2020 election.
“McConnell is the strongest Senate leader in memory, and the most destructive. It's hard to imagine any other leader who would simultaneously block consideration of legislation that would reduce gun violence and legislation that would enhance the security of our elections against foreign interference. But his legacy also includes complete opposition to action needed to combat climate change, a relentless assault on the Affordable Care Act, and the remaking of the federal judiciary with the confirmation of more than 100 right-wing judges.”
The latest in that long line of judicial nominees is Justin Walker, a Louisville, Kentucky native who got a “not qualified” rating from the American Bar Association. The group noted he has never tried a case and wrote that it’s “challenging to determine how much of his ten years since graduation from law school has been spent in the practice of law.”
McConnell is accountable only to the Republican voters of Kentucky, and he showers them with benefits. He’s up for reelection in 2020 and he’s facing the best the Democrats have to offer, Amy McGrath, a retired Marine Corps fighter pilot who will have the blue wave at her back in red Kentucky. That may not be enough, but wouldn’t it be sweet if it were.
“Public attention understandably focuses on Donald Trump, but McConnell represents the other threat to our democracy,” Shapiro wrote in his email. “We will not have a functioning Senate or a healthy politics until Senator McConnell is ousted from power.” Of course, we probably won’t even have one then, but it’s hard to imagine it could be any worse.