McConnell in the middle – caught between GOP lawmakers and Trump

House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, left, accompanied by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, speaks with reporters during a news conference at the Republican congressional retreat in Philadelphia.
House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, left, accompanied by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, speaks with reporters during a news conference at the Republican congressional retreat in Philadelphia. AP

Mitch McConnell’s got what he has long sought: Republicans controlling Congress and the White House. But he’s heading down a bumpy, unpredictable road.

That became clear Thursday as Republicans conducted a second day of strategy meetings here, including sessions with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. Instead of a celebration and a momentum-building rally, the sessions exposed why the GOP is in for some rough times.

McConnell, the Senate majority leader, is caught between conflicting interests. Restless Republican conservatives want the always-deliberative Senate to move faster. Senate Republicans are hardly unified, and because the GOP controls 52 of the 100 seats, it takes only three dissenters to derail a party initiative. And Trump’s impulsive ways, and his marketing skills, make it hard for Congress to claim credit for change.

In the middle of all this is McConnell, the most powerful senator, as Republicans enjoy control of the legislative and executive branches for the first time in 10 years.

At the Republican meetings this week in Philadelphia, the Kentucky Republican sought to downplay potential trouble but acknowledged the challenges, starting with the impatience of the Republican conservatives in the House of Representatives. The House’s most conservative members haven’t forgotten that McConnell backed more mainstream Senate candidates in recent years against tea party hard-liners.

Standing alongside his House counterpart, Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, McConnell noted Thursday that the Senate must review and approve roughly 1,200 Trump appointees, plus judicial nominees and Supreme Court justices. The House has no such task.

It also takes 60 votes in the 100-member Senate to get almost anything done, and, unlike Ryan, McConnell needs Democrats to get him there.

“The speaker understands the challenge of getting things through the Senate,” McConnell said. “We have all this other responsibility the House doesn’t have.”

As before, McConnell said he wouldn’t comment on Trump’s latest outbursts, though he has expressed confidence he can keep his members in line.

“I’ve got 52 members, and almost all of them are what I would call members of the constructive caucus,” McConnell told McClatchy in a recent interview.

On Thursday, Mexico’s President, Enrique Peña Nieto, canceled his planned White House visit over Trump’s aggressive pursuit of a U.S.-Mexico border wall, renegotiated trade deals and increased deportations of immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally.

“I don’t have any advice to give to the president about that issue,” McConnell said.

McConnell did push back, though, on Trump’s statements that suggested he might revive enhanced interrogations of terrorism suspects. In an ABC News interview Wednesday, Trump said the U.S. should “fight fire with fire” and that torture “absolutely works.”

Intelligence experts have cast doubt on the effectiveness and the legality of such practices, including waterboarding. Even CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who in the past had defended the techniques, has pledged that the agency will not resume using them.

“The director of the CIA has made it clear he’s going to follow the law,” McConnell said.

Trump has already signed executive orders relating to health care, energy and immigration. Republican lawmakers often complained when then-President Barack Obama invoked his executive power, and Trump’s willingness to bypass Congress on certain matters might set up conflicts within the party.

That could create more tension among Senate Republicans, meaning McConnell has to keep an eye on his ranks, who have their own often-disparate ideas about health care, infrastructure and foreign policy.

Earlier this week, four Republican senators introduced a bill to allow states to keep the Affordable Care Act if they choose, a departure from the full repeal of Obama’s signature legislative achievement long sought by many in their party.

Also earlier this week, McConnell’s Kentucky colleague Rand Paul – who offered his own health care plan Wednesday – was the lone Senate Republican to vote against Pompeo’s confirmation, citing concerns about torture.

The Senate has yet to vote on Rex Tillerson’s nomination to be secretary of state. Some Senate Republicans have expressed concerns about the former Exxon Mobil CEO’s ties to Russia. A vote to limit debate on the nomination is scheduled for Monday evening.

Trump wants to rebuild the country’s infrastructure and marshal a trillion dollars to do it, but some lawmakers will be reluctant to loosen the purse strings.

“There will be some Republicans, more ideological than conservative, who will say the federal government should not be involved in infrastructure,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “I’m not in that camp.”

Trump wants to launch an investigation into voter fraud in the presidential election. He won the electoral vote but lost the popular vote. He’s dismissed a U.S. intelligence analysis that found evidence of Russian interference in the election, but some Republicans on Capitol Hill aren’t ready to let it go.

“I am not in the forgive-and-forget category when it comes to Russia, about what they did in our election,” Graham said.

On Thursday, McConnell appeared to be sympathetic to lawmakers who felt they’d been shut out of the process during the Obama presidency. “Most members don’t like being completely irrelevant,” he said.

But he also seemed to warn Trump that Congress wouldn’t be a rubber stamp.

“We’re not going to hand this (president) a blank check, either,” McConnell said.

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis