Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell walks away barely touched by health care mess

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., arrives to speak before President Donald Trump during a rally at the Kentucky Exposition Center, Monday, March 20, 2017, in Louisville, Ky.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., arrives to speak before President Donald Trump during a rally at the Kentucky Exposition Center, Monday, March 20, 2017, in Louisville, Ky. AP

One key Republican Washington power player – Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – emerges from the wreckage of Friday’s GOP effort to overhaul Obamacare relatively unscathed.

While McConnell had supported the bill, which failed to get enough Republican support and was pulled from the House floor, the Kentucky Republican never asked his 52-member majority to put anything at risk for it. Now none of the senators have to cast a vote either way.

McConnell kept mum as his most conservative members and at least one moderate publicly opposed it. Fellow Kentuckian Rand Paul actively led the effort to defeat the bill, aligning himself with the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus.

McConnell had plenty to lose by twisting arms and making deals to get the bill passed. The Senate has its own bruising battles ahead in the next few weeks, including a Supreme Court nomination and bills to fund keep the government open and increase the nation’s debt limit. He didn’t need a fight on health care.

“He’s having a nice bourbon tonight,” said Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas and an expert on Congress.

After the failure of the health care bill, Loomis said President Donald Trump may turn to McConnell, a seasoned legislator who’s been in the Senate for more than three decades, for help with other priorities.

Republicans would like to overhaul the nation’s tax system. President Ronald Reagan accomplished this in 1986, Loomis said, and McConnell was there.

“If you think health care was checkers,” Loomis said, “tax reform is chess.”

Top Reagan aides and leaders from the House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans, hammered out the bill after studying ways to revamp the system for nearly two years. There was a reasonable amount of trust, Loomis said, and it worked.

Though tax bills technically originate in the House, Trump may want to avoid a repeat of the health care fiasco.

“You’re back to the body that has had the worst time getting together,” Loomis said. “Trump may learn from this.”

While House Speaker Paul Ryan regroups, McConnell could be the adult in the room Trump needs.

“In the wake of this, maybe you do have Trump going to someone like McConnell, and say let’s not make the same mistakes we did on health care,” Loomis said.

McConnell may also have made it easier to keep and expand his majority in next year’s elections. He has only eight seats to defend, versus 25 Senate Democratic seats in play.

McConnell also can remind his members, when he really needs their votes, that he let them oppose the House health care bill he supported.

Unlike Ryan, McConnell didn’t have to call the White House to deliver bad news, so he’s still in good standing with the White House.

McConnell did his part, meeting with Ryan and Trump to discuss the health care bill. He pitched it in Senate floor speeches. He promoted it at chamber of commerce luncheons back in Kentucky. Just this week, he even stood on stage with Trump in Louisville when the president came to McConnell’s hometown. And he pledged to take up the bill next week if it passed the House.

On Friday, McConnell released a two-sentence statement after the bill failed.

“Obamacare is failing the American people and I deeply appreciate the efforts of the speaker and the president to keep our promise to repeal and replace it,” he said. “I share their disappointment that this effort came up short.”

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis

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