Mitch McConnell’s primary mission: To show the Senate is efficient and workmanlike — and avoid a costly government shutdown just before the critical November election.
His chief nemesis this week: His Kentucky colleague, Republican Rand Paul. Again.
They represent the same state, often vote the same way, and share the same conservative philosophy. But their approaches are radically different. McConnell, the Senate majority leader, is a consensus-builder. Paul doesn’t mind going it alone. McConnell will avoid ideological conflict for the sake of collegiality. Paul doesn’t mind tying up the Senate by pressing his views.
The taciturn McConnell is a loyalist to his party and the Senate. The libertarian-leaning Paul has cultivated a reputation as a free agent who seemingly relishes the opportunity to challenge the party.
“You could not have two senators further apart in their styles or their approaches to their Senate careers than these two,” said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky.
This week, McConnell had carefully crafted, along with Democrats, a spending plan for defense and domestic agencies that was smoothly moving toward final passage Thursday.
Then along came Paul, delaying a vote because he wanted to include a plan that would bar taxpayer dollars from going to Planned Parenthood and other groups that perform abortions.
“The dirty little secret is that Republican leadership is blocking my amendment to defund Planned Parenthood,” Paul said in a floor speech his office characterized as ”blistering.”
That was exactly the sort of political dynamite McConnell wanted to avoid. McConnell is on a mission for his chamber to pass major spending bills, and that means staying away from anything that stokes controversy.
Still, Paul lit the match. He went to the Senate floor and accused Republican leadership of stifling his amendment. Leaders, he said, were more interested in expanding government than in preventing abortions.
Leadership relented and Paul got his vote. His bid failed as Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska joined with Democrats to vote against it. McConnell, who had sought to keep the package clear of conflict, was a yes vote.
Paul claimed a moral victory: “If it took exposing the preference of so many in my own party to continue reckless spending over protecting the innocent, it was a fight worth having,” he said.
The effort came after McConnell told reporters that passage of the massive, $857 billion spending package could help an oft-deadlocked Congress avoid a potential government shutdown or “any kind of drama associated with the end of the fiscal year.” The fiscal year ends Sept. 30.
“We are rebuilding a regular process for responsibly appropriating taxpayers’ money,” McConnell said. “We’re achieving what we set out to do, and we’re doing it together.”
Paul voted against the spending bill in the end. It cleared with an 85 to 7 vote. It now goes to the House.
McConnell, first elected in 1984, is the ultimate party insider. “He’s stayed with the team, whatever the team is doing at the time,” Voss said.
Paul, first elected in 2010, has sought to pull the party to his thinking, countering the party orthodoxy on government surveillance and foreign intervention.
The pair’s differences were evident from the start. McConnell has assiduously nurtured Kentucky’s Republican Party, but Paul wasn’t McConnell’s choice in 2010 to succeed former Republican Sen. Jim Bunning when he retired.
McConnell and Paul have learned to make accommodations, said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky and a veteran political reporter. Paul helped McConnell win a tough re-election fight in 2014 and McConnell endorsed Paul’s 2016 run for the presidency, opening doors to key fundraisers.
“They understand they’re on completely different planets politically and I’m sure McConnell gets irritated when Paul does these kind of things, but they’ve found ways to placate,” Cross said.
The two Kentucky senators also diverged when it came to President Donald Trump’s decision to yank former CIA director John Brennan’s security clearance. Paul had publicly urged Trump to pull Brennan’s clearance, announcing he planned to bring it up at a July meeting at the White House and later hailed Trump’s decision to do so.
McConnell, who is said to talk frequently, if privately, with Trump, declined to offer his take on what Trump should do.
“That’s within the purview of the president’s authority and I don’t have any particular advice to give him,” McConnell told reporters.
They do find common ground on issues close to home. Paul and McConnell are major champions of efforts to remove hemp from the federal list of controlled substances.
This week each praised Trump’s call to remove restrictions on coal-fired power plants, with McConnell calling the Obama-era rule it would replace an “intrusive regulatory regime — built not on effective policy, but on far-left ideology.”
Paul tweeted that it was a “very good day for Kentucky” and said he applauded Trump “for continuing to roll back and working to end the Obama war on coal.”