After U.S. President-elect Joe Biden ’s inauguration, Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, is likely to hold the key to the future trajectory of American politics. In the post-Trump era, as the senior-most Republican in Washington, with an increased concentration of power in his hands, he will determine the Senate’s agenda if, as is expected, the Republican Party retains control of the Upper House after the Georgia runoffs.
Mr. McConnell has been leader of the Republican Party in the Senate since 2006 — the longest-serving Senator to hold this position. He repeatedly demonstrated his obstructionist streak during the Obama presidency. In October 2010, Mr. McConnell declared, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Although he failed to prevent Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012, he continued his obstructionist attitude during Mr. Obama’s second term. He was principally responsible for blocking many of Mr. Obama’s judicial nominees, including Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland in 2016, on the spurious excuse that the President did not have the authority to fill a Supreme Court vacancy in his last year in office. He, of course, ate his words when he steered Trump-appointed Justice Barrett’s nomination through the Senate, just a month before the presidential election this year, in order to stack the court before Mr. Trump left office.
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Mr. McConnell’s obstructionist attitude towards Democratic administrations could be a recipe for frequent deadlocks and policy paralysis during Mr. Biden’s presidency. Mr. McConnell is committed to the Republican economic and political agenda far more than Mr. Trump, for whom the Republican Party was a convenient tool to enhance his personal interests.
Mr. McConnell is a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, committed to the party’s long-time goal of reshaping the judiciary, overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court legalising abortion, and opposing healthcare reform and economic policies aimed at redistributing wealth and income.
Mr. McConnell is expected to obstruct Mr. Biden’s legislative initiatives on environmental policy, healthcare, COVID-19-related relief measures, immigration, and many other issues, on which Mr. Biden is expected to reverse Mr. Trump’s policies. The Republican stalling is expected to begin immediately after the inauguration, when the Senate would ratify Mr. Biden’s cabinet appointments.
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In the words of Senator Chris Murphy of the Democratic Party, “Mitch McConnell will force Joe Biden to negotiate every single Cabinet secretary, every single district court judge, every single U.S. attorney with him … my guess is we’ll have a constitutional crisis pretty immediately.”
This anticipated gridlock does not augur well for the functioning of the American government for the next four years. Of late, the Senate has become more rigidly divided on party lines and its members have been subjected to unprecedented control by party leaderships.
The Senate traditionally had independent-minded members, who acted like elder statesmen, and not merely as partisan politicians. The situation has now come to resemble a Westminster-style parliamentary system, where the party whip has to be obeyed unquestioningly, because the political costs for dissenters can be very high. This is understandable in a parliamentary system because it provides stability to the government. But in a presidential system based on separation of powers, such rigid party discipline is a recipe for perpetual impasse.
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This is particularly so because in addition to its legislative role, the Senate also exercises the important function of “advise and consent” in the executive sphere. If past experience is any guide, Mr. McConnell is likely to contribute to the gridlock, not ameliorate it.
Mohammed Ayoob is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations at Michigan State University