Mitch McConnell suffered a rare, stinging defeat Tuesday. But he’s wily enough to recover.
The Senate Majority Leader was forced to postpone a vote on a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare after failing to secure enough votes for Senate Republicans to deliver on their persistent campaign promise. But Senate observers say the veteran lawmaker, respected by friends and foes for his tactical savvy, knows how to survive politically.
McConnell lacks support from both ends of the Republican ideological spectrum, and he now has to figure out how to assuage the conservatives who believe the bill doesn’t go far enough and also mollify the moderates who fear it cuts too deeply
Don’t count out the possibility that McConnell will thread the health care needle, said Scott Jennings, a Republican political consultant in Kentucky who has worked for McConnell.
“There is a sliver where all these circles overlap and if anyone can find it, McConnell can find it,” Jennings said. “He listens and is capable of sorting out what is possible, what is not possible and he’s built up enough trust that his caucus trusts his instincts and judgment.”
McConnell’s political judgment now, Jennings suggested, is that “failing to fulfill that promise is not a road the Republican party wants to go down.”
President Donald Trump, who has been largely disengaged in the Senate’s healthcare battle – though an allied group is running ads critical of one Senate holdout – jumped in in dramatic fashion on Tuesday, hosting Senate Republicans at the White House.
He criticized Democrats, whom he dubbed “the other side,” for saying “all sorts of things before they even knew what the bill was.”
And he told the senators, “This will be great if we get it done. And if we don’t get it done, it’s just going to be something that we’re not going to like – and that’s okay. I understand that very well.”
After the meeting, McConnell told reporters, “I had hoped that we could have gotten to the floor this week, but we’re not quite there. But I think we have a really good chance of getting there. It’ll just take a little bit longer.”
McConnell also has $200 billion in deficit savings compared with the House-passed bill that he’s expected to use to sweeten deals.
Yet if there has been elbow twisting, several senators who have opposed the legislation said they had not been approached. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a moderate who opposes the current bill and has expressed worries about cuts to Medicaid, said there had been “no outreach” from McConnell’s office.
And McConnell’s Kentucky counterpart, Republican Sen. Rand Paul, who said the bill falls well short of repealing Obamacare, told reporters Monday night that he hadn’t received a single call from Senate leadership.
“I’ve gotten a call from the White House, but nobody from Senate Republican leadership is interested at this time in our vote,” Paul told reporters.
Still, McConnell has repeatedly salvaged victories when political prospects seemed darkest, helping avert a debt crisis in 2011 when he concocted an unusual solution that the Obama administration embraced.
That required working with Democrats, however, not his own caucus. And McConnell may have met his match with health care, said Jim Manley, an aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
“His calculation is that he can spend next week or so trying to figure out how to bring some of these recalcitrant Republicans on board and there’s a reason why you don’t want to bet against him,” Manley said. “But policy has never been his forte. He’s been accustomed to taking a little bit from Column A and a little bit from Column B and lashing it all together. Health care doesn’t work like that.”
Still, Manley suggests McConnell could still find a way to win by losing.
“I’ve got five bucks to say he just wants to see how to get this behind him so they can get to the main event: tax cuts,” Manley said. “Health care has never been a big priority for him; he’s always wanted to move to tax reform.”
At the White House, McConnell warned that Republicans may find themselves needing Democrats if they can’t reach a fix.
“Either Republicans will agree and change the status quo or the markets will continue to collapse and we’ll have to sit down with Senator (Chuck) Schumer,” he said of the Senate Minority Leader. “And my suspicion is that any negotiation with Democrats would include none of the reforms that we would like to make on the market side and the Medicaid side. For all of those reasons, we need to come up with a solution. The American people elected us to do that. And we’re working hard to do that.”
Republicans fear the week-long delay will allow opposition to the proposal to build, and Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, said he was of the view that “the politics of this doesn’t get any easier the longer you wait.”
But Thune was willing to defer to McConnell.
“If we can make some changes that improve the policy in a way that makes it more likely for 50 of our senators to vote for this, then this was a good judgment on behalf of the leader,” Thune said.
Tony Pugh, Franco Ordonez and Lindsay Wise contributed to this report.