How Trump could use Amy Coney Barrett as leverage over Mitch McConnell
President Trump wants a deal. Mitch McConnell won't let him have one.
Trump, down double digits in the polls less than three weeks before Election Day, has upped his offer in long-simmering COVID-19 stimulus talks to $1.8 trillion, and he had his surrogates tell the Sunday talk shows he could go higher. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who also wants a deal, is down to $2.2 trillion. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, Wall Street, and most mainstream economists agree a large jolt of government aid is the only prescription for preventing a drawn-out, slow economic recovery and even greater wreckage for U.S. businesses large and small.
McConnell, the Senate majority leader, is grudgingly offering $500 billion. Trump's response?
STIMULUS! Go big or go home!!!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 13, 2020
MConnell will go home. He won't consider the bigger price tag on offer from Pelosi and Trump's lead negotiator, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, because his caucus doesn't want to authorize that much spending. Whether it's latent fiscal conservatism, concerns about 2022 or 2024 primary challenges, or doubts that they will be in control next year, Senate Republicans are not interested in sending checks with Trump's name on them to American voters before Nov. 3.
Trump is. And he really only has one piece of leverage over McConnell, if he's bold enough to use it.
To get any deal negotiated by Pelosi and Mnuchin through the Senate, McConnell would have to rely on Senate Democrats, a step he is loath to take. His driving animus is keeping his job as majority leader — and confirming conservative judges to lifetime appointments. And therein lies the key to Trump's October surprise.
McConnell loves confirming judges. We know this from his behavior, and we know this because Trump told us so. "You know what Mitch's biggest thing is in the whole world? His judges," Trump told journalist Bob Woodward on tape earlier this year. McConnell "will absolutely ask me, 'Please, let's get the judge approved instead of 10 ambassadors.'"
Trump likes confirming conservative judges because the people who support him like that he confirms conservative judges, but that's not his passion. He likes to win. He also wants the stock market to go up, U.S. government checks and gift cards to go to voters, and to been seen making deals. Dealmaking is kind of his thing. By thwarting his deal, McConnell is making Trump look weak.
The one hand Trump has to play is Amy Coney Barrett. Presidents appoint Supreme Court justices, if the Senate gives them consent. Senate Republicans will almost certainly rush Barrett's nomination through to Trump's desk before Election Day, but McConnell can't seat her on the bench. This is the big prize, what McConnell lives for — and Trump can take it away.
The president wouldn't have to withdraw Barrett's nomination — he wants her confirmed, too. But he could suspend it, put it on hold, let McConnell know that there won't be a Justice Amy Coney Barrett unless McConnell pushes through, say, $2 trillion in stimulus funds.
Is an enduring 6-3 conservative Supreme Court majority worth $2 trillion of other people's money to Mitch McConnell? There's only one way to find out.
The final stretch of the 2020 presidential race isn't going well for Trump. He's clearly on track to become the first one-term president since George Herbert Walker Bush — and he has been for months, maybe years. Dirty tricks might gain him a point or two in the polls, but not enough to close the gap with Democrat Joe Biden. Outfoxing Mitch McConnell might not either, but honestly, it's his best shot.
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