Mitch McConnell seems to be leading Republicans by playing a long game.
Outside the Senate chamber, GOP lawmakers struggle to make statements on camera, weigh their tweets carefully – and wring their hands behind closed doors over new evidence that President Donald Trump may have overstepped in firing James Comey as FBI director.
McConnell, the Senate majority leader, has been more than careful. He’s been calculating.
Publicly, the Kentucky Republican has taken the role of a sober, policy-driven Senate leader, eager to keep the institution operating and the party line prominent as Washington whirls. His opening speech Thursday to the Senate was all about overhauling the nation’s tax system. His Republican caucus a few hours later stuck to health care.
McConnell is a delicate position. Republicans have tried for seven years to repeal Obamacare, for instance, only to be thwarted by the Democratic president. Now there’s a Republican in the White House, and McConnell sees a long-sought opportunity. Others include efforts to revamp the tax code, slash domestic spending and bolster defense spending.
His party has nine seats to defend next year. While two are seen as vulnerable, Arizona’s Jeff Flake and Nevada’s Dean Heller, it would take a Democratic net gain of only three to give them control of the Senate.
Republicans control 52 of the 100 seats, enough to give McConnell what he needs to lead a functioning Senate. He’s trying to provide desperately needed breathing space to study operatives’ data and determine just how Trump’s troubles will affect his Senate majority.
So while McConnell stays his careful course, his colleagues ponder and worry.
“The legislative process is pretty much ground to a halt until you get the Comey episode dealt with,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said after a lunch meeting where lawmakers discussed health care but not the barrage of allegations about Trump, Comey and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
“There are still meetings happening, but I have a view that this is an impediment,” said Graham, who wants Comey to appear before his Senate Judiciary subcommittee.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, agreed.
“If there’s new revelations every day coming in the press concerning the White House,” she said, “it makes it more difficult for us to pursue an agenda here.”
A memo written by Comey, reported Tuesday by The New York Times, said Trump had urged the FBI director to end his investigation of Flynn, who had misled the White House about his contacts with Russian officials. Trump fired Flynn in February, and last week he fired Comey, who has not said anything public since.
While McConnell offers a steady hand, other Senate Republicans are on the move regarding the Comey affair. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, asked the FBI on Wednesday to turn over any notes or memos Comey may have written about the investigation.
Burr and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the committee’s ranking member, said they’d asked Comey to testify before the committee in closed and public hearings.
“We need to gain access to the memo,” Collins said, “as well as any other memos that reflect the former FBI director’s conversations with the president.”
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., a former Intelligence Committee chairman, said Burr was “making progress” on getting Comey in to testify.
“If we can do that, get that out of the way, it will help,” Roberts said of the Senate’s policy agenda.
“I don’t know that it complicates it,” said Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, downplaying the impact of the past week’s events. “It’s like everything else in your life. It’s there, and you deal with it as best you can.”
McConnell himself has taken a largely hands-off approach to the matter.
While some Republicans and lots of Democrats have called for a special select committee or an independent special prosecutor to investigate Russia’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election, McConnell has consistently said the matter rests in the hands of the Intelligence Committee.
“In the meantime, for the rest of us who are not directly involved,” McConnell told Bloomberg Television on Tuesday, “I think we to need to concentrate on what comes next.”
He did, however, endorse the idea of Comey’s Senate testimony.
“It’s appropriate and timely for the Senate to hear directly from former Director James Comey in a public setting as part of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s ongoing investigation,” McConnell said in a statement to CQ Roll Call.
McConnell, at the request of his Democratic counterpart, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, also invited Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to brief the Senate. Rosenstein wrote a memo last week that Trump used to justify his decision to dismiss Comey. The closed briefing will take place Thursday.
Sal Russo, co-founder and chief strategist of the Tea Party Express, a conservative activist group, said McConnell was simply staying in his lane, tending to his own responsibilities rather than getting involved in some other arena.
“If you are party leader, of course you’ve got to weigh in on issues,” Russo said, “but he does a good job of demonstrating to his members that his primary focus is making the U.S. Senate a functional and operating place.”
Russo said it was an example of McConnell trusting a traditionally bipartisan committee to do its work.
“He believes in Burr and Warner, and he’s doing everything he can to let that process work and not deteriorate,” Russo said.