Politics & Government

Mitch McConnell: Despite setbacks, nevertheless, he persists


Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is in no risk of losing his leadership job – for now – despite a crush of woes that call into question the wily politician's hold on the Senate.

Despite spending millions, McConnell’s favored candidate for a Republican Senate primary lost to an upstart, outspoken politician who threatens to disrupt the clubby Senate. That news came just hours after the Senate’s second attempt to deliver on a campaign promise by repealing Obamacare fizzled, and a trusted ally, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee, said he would not seek re-election next year.

Grassroots groups are notably furious about the latest collapse of efforts to repeal Obamacare. They warn that McConnell’s job will only become more difficult as emboldened conservatives look to take on the party establishment.

But senators on Wednesday remained firmly supportive of McConnell, chalking up the setbacks to the difficulty of securing wins with a slim majority that leaves little room for maneuvering. Republicans control 52 of the Senate’s 100 seats.

"We’re not enough of a majority, we’re not really truly a majority," said Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., who, echoing his colleagues, said neither former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore’s victory nor the collapse of a second-chance health care bill reflects on McConnell’s leadership abilities.

"People say we haven’t done this, we haven’t done health care," Inhofe said. But he noted that the health care bill stalled because of the opposition of three Republicans. "People have to keep that in mind," he said.

McConnell, whose allies pumped millions into the Alabama race on behalf of the incumbent Sen. Luther Strange, emerged as a flashpoint in the race. He was decried as the embodiment of the Washington "swamp" that President Donald Trump pledged to drain on the campaign trail, even though Trump backed Strange.

Strange’s loss could strengthen former Trump aide Steve Bannon, who has pledged to target incumbent Republican senators in Mississippi, Arizona and Nevada.

Yet at the Capitol, Republican senators said they did not see the race as a referendum on McConnell or the ways of the Senate.

"It reflects the wishes of the people of Alabama," said Sen. John Kennedy, R-La. "It doesn’t say a thing about Mitch McConnell or the U.S. Senate or the Republican Party. It’s one election in one state."

McConnell’s support for Strange, which included convincing Trump to endorse him, only served to help him with his fellow senators, showing them he has their back.

"With only one or two exceptions, every Senate Republican is thoroughly supportive of Mitch McConnell," said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist who served as a top adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

What’s more, Conant said "nobody else wants that job.

"I think most Senate Republicans woke up this morning and thought ‘I’m glad I’m not the majority leader,’ " Conant said. “There’s a sense that McConnell does as good a job as possible, especially given the dysfunction at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue."

Still, there is acknowledgment that Republican voters are growing exasperated by what they see as unfulfilled campaign promises.

"People out there, at least primary voters, are not happy and I think it’s frustration with the lack of progress on some of the big ticket items," said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. "The solution is to start getting some results."

Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, said the Senate’s inability to pass Obamacare repeal and replacement is a “failure of leadership on the part of Leader McConnell.

“No one should be surprised that the voters are angry,” she said. “It is up to Republicans in both the Senate and the House to find a path to repealing Obamacare fully. If they continue to fail they will get a response from the voters next year."

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., one of the Republican senators opposed to the latest GOP health care effort, understood the frustration.

"Some of the results in Alabama are that people don’t like to be told what to do by anybody, whether it's establishment Republicans or conservative Republicans," Paul told MSNBC.

He noted that voters are unhappy that Republicans have yet to repeal the 2010 law, "but I don't necessarily blame that on Senator McConnell. He voted for all the permutations of repeal."

Trump offered McConnell support on Wednesday, telling reporters he believes the Senate will eventually repeal Obamacare.

"I do have confidence in him," Trump said of McConnell. "But it's not up to me, it's up to the Senate."

Disappointed conservative activists said McConnell has one more shot, hoping that as Congress and the White House pivot to tax reform that McConnell can regain his luster as a master tactician.

"If ever there was a need to show that reputation, now is the time," said Alfredo Ortiz, president and chief executive of the Job Creators Network, which is working with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to secure tax cuts for small businesses. "People are going to start asking if we can’t get done something that is a foundation of Republican principles, what can we get done?"

McConnell, characteristically taciturn, gave brief remarks at a joint House and Senate Republican press conference as lawmakers unveiled an outline of their tax plan, but left before it ended.

"This is about getting America going again, growing again," he said, surrounded by fellow lawmakers. "Put another way, taking money out of Washington and putting it in the pockets of our citizens."

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark