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McConnell, the Senate’s decider, discovers the limits of his control

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on April 10 he doesn't believe special counsel Robert S. Mueller III will be removed from his office. (Video: The Washington Post)

Mitch McConnell is correct when he boasts of being the Senate’s decider, the person who determines which bills and nominations get considered.

“I’m the one who decides what we take to the floor. That’s my responsibility as the majority leader. And we will not be having this on the floor of the Senate,” McConnell (R-Ky.) told Fox News’s Neil Cavuto on Tuesday, dismissing a bipartisan bill designed to protect special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

Less than 24 hours later, McConnell learned how little control he has of the Senate other than setting the schedule. First, the chamber failed to get enough support to advance a bill updating the Coast Guard. Then, for more than an hour, the roll call remained deadlocked on the confirmation of the new NASA administrator as a lone Republican held out support.

Facing Senate gridlock, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) switched his vote in order to end debate on NASA administrator nominee, Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.). (Video: U.S. Senate)

The Coast Guard and NASA? They’re not exactly the most controversial government agencies, but that’s where things stand these days.

The Republicans’ 51-to-49 majority allows a few senators — or in Wednesday’s case just one, Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) — to bring the Senate to a halt on what is otherwise pretty routine action. Flake did not even have real objections to the NASA nominee, Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), but he has raised concerns about the nomination of Mike Pompeo to be secretary of state.

So Flake used Bridenstine’s nomination as a hostage to win assurances that he could have more detailed talks with Pompeo, the CIA director.

“He has got an issue he wants to talk to Director Pompeo about,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), the majority whip, told reporters afterward, mentioning restrictions on travel to Cuba.

With John McCain (R-Ariz.) home battling cancer and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) home with a new baby, McConnell has been leading a 50-to-48 Senate of late. Every member of the Democratic caucus opposed Bridenstine because he lacks a deep scientific background.

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When Flake initially voted no, it left the tally deadlocked at 49 — and with Vice President Pence in Florida for the summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, no one was there to break the tie.

Eventually, Flake got his assurances and changed his vote, putting the nomination on track for final confirmation.

As he walked onto the Senate floor, McConnell simply smiled and declined to comment about whether he knew of Flake’s position before he called the NASA vote. His allies note that more than 100 presidential nominations have cleared the Senate this year alone, a sign of McConnell’s prowess in such a divided body, and point to his decision to mostly push bipartisan legislation this year to avoid such narrow fights.

But senior Republicans are worried that Wednesday’s scene will repeat itself the rest of the year, as Democrats throw up procedural roadblocks and a few maverick Republicans seize their leverage points.

“You know, McConnell’s got a terrible job with all these Democrat filibusters,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, told reporters Wednesday.

“It’s a lesson on when you have a very narrow majority, ” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Health Committee.

McConnell’s trouble goes beyond having “a very narrow majority” — for all intents and purposes, he does not have a governing majority on most days.

Out of 51 Republicans, McConnell can count on about 45 as mostly reliable votes. McCain, even when he is here, is often ready to buck the leader. Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) break ranks as moderates, while Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Mike Lee (Utah) regularly cause headaches from the conservative flank.

And then there is Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), who has floated back and forth the past nine months between loyal soldier to regular thorn in the side of President Trump and Senate leaders.

On any close vote, these Republicans can gum up the works by withholding their votes until their issue is dealt with. The Pompeo nomination is already in that orbit, with Paul declaring his opposition at the outset because he views the CIA director as too much of a military hawk.

Mitch McConnell finally has something to brag about: Judicial appointments

Without McCain, McConnell starts with 49 Republicans and knows that he needs a Democratic vote to confirm Pompeo. That appears likely to happen — he received 15 votes from the other side of the aisle on his CIA confirmation — but McConnell cannot afford to lose Flake or other Republicans.

The same routine is playing out on the nomination of Gina Haspel, the deputy CIA director, to replace Pompeo. Most Democrats have voiced opposition, before she has even had a hearing, and Paul also intends to vote no because of her role in harsh interrogations during the Bush administration.

What’s to stop the Republicans who support the Mueller-protection bill from refusing to back Haspel until McConnell allows a vote on their legislation?

These are just nomination fights, which require only a simple majority to advance and confirm. On legislative battles, the Senate rules still require a 60-vote threshold to choke off a filibuster, meaning McConnell needs at least 10 Democrats to move any policy bill toward a final vote.

Twice this week, McConnell fell short of that mark. On Monday, only seven senators from the Democratic caucus supported a tribal-lands bill amid a dispute over labor standards, and right before Wednesday’s NASA-vote drama, just six Democrats supported the Coast Guard bill while the rest feared it would weaken environmental standards in ports.

Once Congress passed the massive $1.3 trillion federal spending bill last month, lawmakers acknowledged the agenda would be pretty slim the rest of the year. But now it’s looking as if even traditionally bipartisan measures like NASA and tribal lands will get driven into the political gutter, stuck in a partisan dispute with November’s midterm elections drawing closer and closer.

It’s really unclear just what legislation will get considered.

“I’m going to concentrate here in the Senate and have my colleagues voting on things that are relevant to moving the ball toward the goal line on every single issue that we think we can pass,” McConnell said Tuesday on Fox News.

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