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McConnell returns to Senate, urges Biden to ‘stop wasting time’ on debt ceiling

‘This isn’t the first time being hardheaded has served me very well,’ GOP leader quips

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., returned to the Senate chamber for the first time in almost six weeks on Monday.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., returned to the Senate chamber for the first time in almost six weeks on Monday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell returned to the Senate on Monday weeks after suffering a concussion and fractured rib in a fall, jumping back into the fray by accusing President Joe Biden of taking an “extreme position” over a coming debt ceiling deadline.

“It’s good to be back. I want to thank all my colleagues for their warm wishes, shared over the past few weeks,” the Kentucky Republican said on the floor, quipping of hitting his head during his tumble: “Suffice to say this isn’t the first time being hardheaded has served me very well.”

But the jokes stopped there, with McConnell going right after the president hours after Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., delivered a speech at the New York Stock Exchange that also harshly criticized Biden’s negotiating style — or, as McCarthy described it, the lack of one.

“We shouldn’t be working to undo this administration’s mistakes. We need to secure the border, reduce crime, fight inflation and invest in America’s strength and our security,” McConnell said. “On an even more basic level, President Biden and his administration are literally on the clock to negotiate a debt ceiling solution with Speaker McCarthy and the Republican majority over in the House.

“The president’s economic advisers say the deadline for a solution is not far off. But his political advisers apparently think the White House position should be — listen to this — no talks and no reforms,” he added. “President Biden does not get to stick his fingers in his ears and refuse to listen, talk or negotiate. And the American … people know that the White House needs to stop wasting time and start negotiating with the speaker of the House.”

But White House spokesman Andrew Bates accused McCarthy, who wants big spending cuts in return for any debt limit increase, of “breaking with the bipartisan norm he followed under [former President Donald] Trump by engaging in dangerous economic hostage taking that threatens hard-working Americans’ jobs and retirement savings.”

And Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., questioned what Biden and McCarthy would discuss without a GOP plan to counter Biden’s fiscal 2024 budget blueprint, wondering aloud if they would just chat about the weather outside or furniture around them.

McConnell was back in the fray Monday after being absent from the Senate since falling on March 9 at a Washington, D.C., hotel during a fundraising event. Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., working with McConnell’s leadership staff, oversaw the GOP caucus in McConnell’s absence.

McConnell’s return was the second from an injury in four years. McConnell, 77 at the time, fell in 2019 at his Kentucky home, fracturing a shoulder. That injury required surgery. This time, McConnell underwent unspecified “treatment” but did not require surgery.

He has spoken publicly during his decades as a legislator about his childhood bout with polio, which has made it difficult to navigate stairs. McConnell stumbled, falling to one knee but suffering no major injuries, while stepping onto a stage during a 2014 campaign event.

Fetterman also back

McConnell was joined in his return to the Senate by John Fetterman. The Pennsylvania Democratic senator had been sidelined for several weeks while being treated for depression.

Schumer kicked off the Senate’s Monday session by welcoming back McConnell and Fetterman. He called both “friend.”

“It’s great to have him back here in this chamber. We’re all happy to see he’s recovering well,” he said of McConnell.

Of Fetterman, he said: “We’re all glad he got the support he needed, and he’s sending an important message to millions of Americans that asking for and getting help works.”

Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., used his opening floor remarks to also welcome McConnell back. He also thanked Fetterman for making a statement by seeking treatment for his depression, saying during a recent Zoom chat that he could tell the Pennsylvania senator made the right decision because he looked and sounded healthier.

Feinstein still absent

But the Senate’s spring injured list did not stop with those two members: Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California remains unable to travel to Washington after a bout with shingles. Her office has not set a return date.

Her absence has set off tensions in Democratic circles, with Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., and others calling for her resignation.

Khanna went so far last week as to tweet that “it is obvious she can no longer fulfill her duties,” a contention her office has rejected. The 89-year-old Feinstein, who has announced she will not seek reelection, later Wednesday said she would temporarily give up her Judiciary Committee seat until she can return to work.

Senate Democratic leaders and White House officials are eager to move a number of judicial nominations out of the Judiciary Committee, something that is not possible in the narrowly divided Senate without her vote.

But that proposal hit a snag over the weekend when Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., tweeted that GOP senators should not help Democrats sub in a healthy senator on the Judiciary panel. “Republicans should not assist Democrats in confirming Joe Biden’s most radical nominees to the courts,” Cotton wrote on Saturday.

Ten Republican senators would need to join all Democrats in approving the committee change on the floor. How McConnell advises his colleagues to vote, should one occur, will be one of the first matters to which he must attend now that he is back at the head of the GOP table.

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