Mitch McConnell is trying to move on. Quickly.
After perhaps the most damaging few days of his political career, the Kentucky Republican and Senate majority leader is fully immersing himself in the GOP effort to cut taxes, brushing off jabs from President Trump and trying to make the case that he can shape the government through executive branch and judicial confirmations, according to associates, outside allies and lawmakers who have spoken to him.
But as a direct result of this week’s failure again to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, the crushing primary loss by his preferred Senate candidate in Alabama and the retirement announcement of Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), turning the page appears likely to open a new chapter that could be even more difficult than the last.
Some rank-and-file Republican senators have sidestepped questions about McConnell’s effectiveness as leader, acknowledging with their silence the political liability he has become in some corners of the party. Junior senators have taken aim at his influence over his leadership team — notably the three committee chairs who helped defeat the Obamacare repeal effort.
The GOP leader also is dealing with controversial GOP Senate nominee Roy Moore in Alabama — a fierce critic of McConnell — and a 2018 Senate map that looks less promising than ever. In addition, public and private attacks from Trump threaten to further diminish McConnell’s standing in and outside of Washington.
For the mild-mannered Kentuckian, who has built his career on shrewd tactical maneuvers that have produced wins on the campaign trail and victories inside the Senate chamber, the losses are suddenly mounting, and even his friends acknowledge that the failures have hit McConnell’s image.
“Mitch is sort of the symbol of our dysfunction, but it’s not about Mitch, it’s about all of us,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), leader of the recent failed ACA repeal effort, said Thursday. He said a new leader will not get better results. “You can change the name, and nothing’s going to change until we get better results. If we can pass a tax cut and eventually repeal and replace Obamacare, all is well.”
Now, McConnell is waging his most consequential effort yet for an achievement that would stem the tide.
“I don’t think Mitch McConnell likes to lose,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), one of his appointed counsels in the Senate. As for where he goes next, Capito referred to the title of McConnell’s memoir, “The Long Game,” and said, “I don’t need to say any more than that.”
Allies said McConnell is diving headfirst into the tax effort, the next big legislative undertaking for the Republican Party. In addition to taxes, he told associates this week that he was also in the personnel business, according to one who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private talks. It was a reference to the Senate’s power to shape who staffs the government by confirming or rejecting an administration’s appointees and judicial nominees.
One McConnell friend described his mood this week as “determined.” The majority leader was not surprised by Republican Sen. Luther Strange’s loss to Moore in Alabama, given the polling in the lead-up to Tuesday’s election, said this person, who also was granted anonymity to recount private conversations.
When it came to a news report that Trump physically mocked him, McConnell is said not to have taken it personally, laughing it off instead. The McConnell friend summed up the leader’s reaction this way: It’s been said that imitation is the highest form of flattery.
“My experience with him is he doesn’t allow himself to get too high or too low about any set of circumstances because you tend not to learn anything if you are elated or depressed,” said Josh Holmes, a former McConnell chief of staff who has spent time with his old boss in recent days.
In the Senate, some of McConnell’s colleagues have spoken about him cautiously, showing a hesitance to offer a direct appraisal of the job he is doing. Pressed on how effectively McConnell has been, several Republican senators dodged the topic.
“It’s hard herding cats. I don’t envy him his task, okay?” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).
“He’s got his hands full,” said Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.).
“This is not about individuals, this is about our caucus,” said Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.).
For many Republicans, it may be politically disadvantageous back home to praise McConnell. Moore just won his primary in part by constantly bashing McConnell, and Trump has criticized him publicly.
Still, McConnell is generally liked and respected by Republican senators. For the moment, there are no signs that his job is at risk.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who vented frustration about the very private and at times hurried strategy the leader deployed in trying to repeal the ACA, is not calling for a leadership shake-up.
Asked whether McConnell’s standing was shakier among his Senate Republican colleagues now, McCain replied: “I honestly don’t know. I know we elected him, and I know that he’s an effective leader, and I support him.”
Part of the reason for the continued support, some Republicans said, is absence of an obvious successor.
“I don’t think you are going to see any real discussion about this until there is a real alternative,” said one Senate GOP aide, granted anonymity to speak candidly.
But the makeup of the Senate Republican conference could change in the not-too-distant future. Moore, a firebrand former judge, is not expected to cooperate with McConnell, should he win the special election for Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s old seat December. In the meantime, Moore’s tendency to stoke controversy on the campaign trail could become a headache for the majority leader.
“Roy Moore is unique,” Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) said, trying to put it diplomatically.
Moore is also allied with key figures from Trump’s orbit, such as his former chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who are trying to turn the Alabama victory into a broader blow against the GOP establishment in future races.
Corker’s retirement decision, announced Tuesday, opened up a seat that is now at greater risk of falling into Democratic hands or being snatched up by another far-right candidate.
The tensions from the health-care push, meanwhile, are still raw. Some in McConnell’s inner circle have privately grumbled that Graham and Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) were in over their heads and at times too optimistic about their last-ditch attempt to repeal the ACA before a key deadline, given the difficulty of winning over the Republicans who voted no on a July repeal bill that McConnell crafted.
After that first failed vote two months ago, Perdue noted in a closed-door meeting that there were no punishments meted out after McCain and Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) provided the decisive votes.
Perdue took that criticism public this week when he issued a carefully worded statement that, without naming those three colleagues, excoriated McConnell for not issuing some form of punishment. “There is a complete lack of congressional leadership and no accountability to get results. From the get go, three Republican Senate Chairmen failed to support our efforts,” Perdue said. Collins head the Special Committee on Aging, McCain the Armed Services Committee and Murkowski the Energy Committee.
Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the third-ranking Republican senator, acknowledged that Perdue’s comments have prompted talk about whether gavels should be taken from recalcitrant committee chairmen or, as some junior senators have pushed for in each party, the chairmanship selection process should not rely so heavily on seniority. But Thune, whose job as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference calls for refereeing these disputes, said Perdue’s views remain in the minority.
“It’s been raised, so it’s created a conversation, obviously, but I just don’t think the conference is in a place where they want to get into that in practice,” Thune said.
Murkowski defended her right to vote in her state’s best interest. She never publicly stated her position on Cassidy-Graham before its failure, but on Wednesday she said she remained skeptical and that she preferred a bipartisan process from here on out.
She said that Perdue’s push to punish chairmen sparked a tough internal fight that reminded her, one of six children, of her family brawls.
“He clearly was disappointed, and the fact that he was able to express himself in a meeting with all of us, and kind of get it off his chest, I think is healthy,” Murkowski said. “I’d much rather have that just, kind of, open it all out — I’m from a big family. And you know, if you hold it in, it doesn’t do you any good.”
Looming over everything for McConnell is the perpetual challenge of dealing with Trump, whose unpredictability has left the majority leader’s team on edge.
In a Fox News Channel interview that aired this week, Trump expressed confidence in McConnell. But in the same interview, he once again railed against a key Senate rule requiring 60 votes to pass most legislation.
“I think he has to get rid of the filibuster rule. I think it’s just a disaster for the Republican Party,” said Trump.
McConnell has vowed to protect the provision.