Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell approached the microphones for his weekly press conference on Tuesday with more sense of purpose than he’s had since he tried — but failed — to derail the health care law in March. His goal this time was to kill the Omnibus spending bill, which his Democratic counterpart Harry Reid had just unveiled. Just as earlier this year, though, he didn’t sound like a party leader who was certain he had the votes to kill it.
“I am actively working to defeat it,” he said.
At that point, it looked like the package would sneak by with the help of a half-dozen or more Senate Republicans who don’t have a religious aversion to earmarking. On Thursday, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) released a statement describing it as “on a glide path to passage.” But as the week dragged on, more and more of those members started inching away from the spending bill.
“I suspect I will not support the omnibus,” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) told reporters Wednesday afternoon.
Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) — who pleaded with his party not to impose an earmark moratorium — also backed away from the bill.
The slow drip continued until, by Thursday night, Reid realized he no longer had the votes he’d need to break a filibuster, and the legislation died.
How did McConnell go from uncertain to cocksure in two days?
A confluence of facts and events helped McConnell convince senior appropriators in his own party — people who, like he, don’t fundamentally oppose the earmarking process — to back off the omnibus, according to a Republican leadership aide. Part of it was that, though bipartisan, the bill itself included funding for key Democratic priorities that in the current political environment no Republican supports, or wants to be accused of supporting. The omnibus included $1 billion in spending to implement the health care law — a provision no Republican wanted to de facto support.
“Health care money helped a lot….it added on to the urgency,” the aide said.
Still, some Republicans were soft. In addition to supporting the appropriations process in principle, funding for the government was and is scheduled to run out on Saturday, and they wanted to avoid a government shutdown — or at least avoid being blamed for it.
According to the aide. “When McConnell went down and offered the one page alternative [CR], suddenly there was an alternative, where before it was gonna be: ‘look, we gotta fund the government, let’s just do this.’ He went down and said it doesn’t have to be that way. In two months our guys can rewrite this bill.”
But all of this required McConnell’s persistent pressure. “There were some who liked the idea of an actual appropriations bill versus a CR, there were a lot of conversations — the policy lunch on Tuesday, the steering [lunch] lunch on Wednesday, the Thursday lunch group yesterday,” the aide said. McConnell “lived on the phone” Thursday, lining up commitments from his members.
Meanwhile, by picking longer-term political fights with GOP earmark flipfloppers, Democrats were in some ways harming their own short-term cause.
“Dems were pitching the Republican earmarks to anybody who’d listen,” the aide said. “What it did was it branded the bill as, if you look at the headlines, “Earmark-Laden Spending Bill” — an albatross Republicans were all too happy to hang around Democratic necks.
“They helped us do it — they were complicit in that.”
In the end, though, the hard reality of a successful filibuster — not the impending shutdown, and not Sen. Jim DeMint’s threat to have the bill read aloud — that forced Reid’s hand. “The bill reading didn’t have the effect that some may have said it did,” the aide said.
In fact, moments before the whole thing unraveled, Democratic aides were telling reporters, including this one, that they’d figured out a way around the three-day bill-reading, and would be able to kickstart the process of ending debate sooner than they’d hoped.
“They were going to come down and do this [procedural trick], set up a structure where you refer to a bill as an amendment so you don’t have to read all 2000 pages,” according to the leadership aide. “A lot of their members started coming to the floor — they wouldn’t have done that if there was gonna be a bill reading.”
Indeed, given the late hour, the floor was crowded with about a dozen Democrats. But just before 7 p.m. Reid spoke to McConnell who delivered the fatal blow.
By Thursday night, “there were two undecided [Republicans] — no more than two undecided at the end of the whole thing,” the aide said — enough to assure the bill’s demise.
Speaking from the floor shortly after he learned the news, a defeated Reid acknowledged that McConnell’s power play had paid off. Nine Republicans, he said, had signaled to him their support for the bill. Others said they wanted the bill to pass, but couldn’t vote for it. “In the last 24 hours, they’ve walked away from me.”
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.