Mitch McConnell had a tough year, and Donald Trump to thank

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in his Capitol Hill office on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in his Capitol Hill office on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017. Associated Press

Everything was in place for this to be Mitch McConnell’s year. He had a Republican Congress and White House for the first time in a decade, and a simple majority of votes was all that was needed to not only confirm major nominees but pass major legislation too.

And certainly, he scored some big wins — first with a Supreme Court confirmation and then by delivering to the White House the first tax reform package in three decades.

But the Kentucky Republican, who entered Congress in 1985, is looking ahead to 2018 with fewer accomplishments to tout than he might have hoped, and a long list of leftover legislative agenda items from 2017 to confront.

McConnell was able to help avert a government shutdown before Christmas, but he couldn’t at any other point in the year advance individual spending bills. Doing so would have averted the current scenario: Come January, party leaders will have to convince members of Congress to agree to a longer-term deal to fund government agencies, and no one has any good idea how it will all come together.

When Congress reconvenes in the new year, McConnell will be looking for how to reauthorize children’s health insurance funding, reform a government surveillance program, provide money for storm-ravaged states and territories and protect more than 800,000 young immigrants from deportation before a March 8 deadline. And in an election year, he will have to straddle a desire to appease the party base while acknowledging the reality that few things might be accomplished without reaching across the aisle — he will, after all, by Jan. 3, have only 51 Republican votes to work with.

In a recent interview with McClatchy from his Capitol Hill office, McConnell said punting on “this potpourri of issues” was not unusual, and he blamed Democrats for using procedural maneuvers to slow down the legislative process across the board.

“Democrats have concluded it’s not in their best interest to pass individual (spending) bills,” McConnell explained. “They like slow-walking everything, rolling it up into one big ball and having a crammed negotiation.”

One major legislative defeat was Congress’ failure to deliver on the Republican promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, resulting in months of ultimately wasted time and effort that could have been used elsewhere. McConnell did see comprehensive tax overhaul legislation over the finish line — but even the tax bill that cuts rates for most Americans is proving to be a hard sell.

When asked why Republicans were finding themselves having to defend massive tax cuts to the American people, McConnell attributed the bill’s 29 percent approval rating to the media’s “unrelentingly negative” coverage. He then pulled out a typed list of talking points to provide examples of how the GOP would overcome bad press and make its case to voters ahead of the midterm elections.

“We’re having a fun time selling this,” said McConnell. “We believe in this, we think it’s the right thing to do for the country, we’re anxious to have this debate.”

McConnell’s friends, colleagues, former associates and political observers agree McConnell had a tough year.

They also share belief that it wasn’t all McConnell’s fault.

“He got a bum rap,” said Rep. Hal Rogers, a fellow Kentucky Republican and a senior appropriator. “He got a lot of undue criticism. After all, he had a two-vote margin in the Senate, which makes things almost impossible. And these are really, really, tough, complicated issues. Plus, we had an unusual president to work with.”

Indeed, many political experts pointed at President Donald Trump when asked about McConnell’s hard year.

Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, said the GOP leader “had to deal with a president who is unlike any president in American history, who was openly critical of him and didn’t follow norms. And McConnell is a creature of norms.”

“With a different Republican president, he might have achieved more,” added Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University who used to work for Democrats in Congress. “The president was constantly interfering, making comments that basically put people in Congress, particularly in the Senate, off message. Whenever the president asserted himself in legislative matters, it had negative consequences for McConnell.”

McConnell acknowledged he went through a “rough patch” with the president in August, following the Senate’s failure to advance an Obamacare repeal bill. He told constituents that Trump had “excessive expectations” for what Congress could achieve. Trump, in turn, started tweeting that McConnell should “get back to work” to undo the 2010 health law after he “screamed” about it for years. For a period, the two men stopped talking.

McConnell told McClatchy last week that his relationship with the president had since improved, quipping that he was much fonder of Trump’s recent tweets praising him for passing tax overhaul legislation than he was of the tweets from August.

He wouldn’t venture to explain the source of their friction.

“I’m not in the psychoanalyst world,” he said. “We have a very similar world view of what the country needs. Little bit different operating styles, but very similar views.”

Trump’s attempt to sway congressional action by tweeting directives and antagonizing lawmakers was not helpful, said Ross, Cross and others. Indeed, these actions sometimes had the opposite effect, particularly when it came to McConnell’s ability to lead his members toward legislative victories.

“You can’t make people do things they don’t want to do and there are things you can’t fix,” said Scott Jennings, a Kentucky-based political strategist who worked on McConnell’s last three reelection campaigns. “Trump was in an open feud with people who ended up going the other way (on health care) and there are a couple of people in the conference who are more liberal than the rest of the conference. At the end of the day, I think it was a bloody miracle they got to 49 (votes for health care), given all that had happened and all of what was said and all the maneuvering.”

McConnell was ultimately uninterested last week in dwelling much on what he and his Republican Senate had not gotten done this year. In his interview with McClatchy, he wouldn’t address what changes to the tax code he might have wanted that didn’t make it into final bill, and he made it clear he wasn’t interested in revisiting the health care debate next year.

“We accomplished, with the exception of health care, all of the things we wanted to accomplish,” McConnell said, citing the elimination of Obama-era business regulations, confirmation of 12 Circuit Court judges and repealing Obamacare’s individual mandate in the tax bill.

Cross, who covered years of McConnell’s political highs and lows as a longtime political reporter, suggested the Senate majority leader’s stubbornness to acknowledge the year’s challenges were in keeping with his character.

“It was McConnell’s most challenging year ever,” Cross said. “But he would say that every challenge is an opportunity. And the opportunity, of course, was he finally had a president who would sign his bills. And that is the thing that never changed.”

Emma Dumain: 202-383-6126, @Emma_Dumain