FILE PHOTO – A demonstrator heads home after protesting the Republican healthcare bill outside Republican Congressman Darrell Issa’s office in Vista, California, June 27, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake
BY ALEXANDER BOLTON, The Hill–
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is in the pressure cooker as Republicans seek to deliver on the healthcare reforms they’ve been promising voters for years.
The majority leader has drawn high marks in recent years for his ability to keep the Senate GOP conference unified, but that discipline has been shattered by the divisive healthcare debate.
Conservatives have at times challenged McConnell’s leadership over the years, but now those complaints are spreading to different corners of the conference.
Last week, McConnell got into a heated exchange with moderate Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a close ally who has major concerns about Medicaid cuts in the legislation.
Other members, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), question the wisdom of pushing through a bill that only one out of three Republicans approve of, according to one recent poll.
Conservatives such as Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), meanwhile, have complained about being shut out of the process.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) says his leader erred by skipping committee hearings and markups on the legislation.
“What we need to do in my view is what I’ve been saying all along. Go through the regular order. Have the hearings, have witnesses, have the administration come up and say, ‘Here is our proposal,’ ” he said.
If the healthcare bill fails, these criticisms will likely come to the fore when the party and the press conduct their post-mortems.
A spokesperson for McConnell declined to respond publicly to the criticisms.
But other Republicans have come to his defense.
One Senate GOP aide said that Lee, Johnson and McCain have had more input by participating in the more than 30 meetings McConnell has held with the Republican conference to craft the bill than had it gone through committee hearings and markups.
“Everybody will be at the table,” McConnell pledged on May 9.
The aide said that it’s contradictory for Lee and Johnson to complain about lack of ability to shape the bill when they blocked it from coming up for debate last week.
Another aide said “getting a bill on the floor gives members more of a say through an amendment process.”
A McConnell ally who is not authorized to speak for the leader pushed back against the criticism, arguing that McConnell had no choice but to handle negotiations behind closed doors and on a speedy schedule because it took the House months to pass its bill.
“The inability of the House to pass its own bill early on delayed Senate consideration of this considerably,” the source said. “It made it very difficult for McConnell to have the open-ended, freewheeling consideration of this that people are now claiming we should have had.”
One of McConnell’s top priorities is keeping track of Senate floor time and making sure that other important priorities, such as tax reform, raising the debt ceiling and reauthorizing the Children’s Health Insurance Program don’t get crowded off the schedule.
If McConnell can pass ObamaCare repeal, the criticism will melt away, and his reputation as Washington’s savviest dealmaker will be bolstered.
But if the bill sinks, he will be in the unenviable position of have captained the ship.
President Trump warned earlier this year that there would be a “bloodbath” if Republicans fail to pass a bill replacing major parts of ObamaCare, and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) later agreed there would be a harsh backlash from the party’s base “if we don’t keep our word to the people who sent us here.”
GOP strategists say the burden of success is resting on McConnell’s shoulders, even though there are limits to what he can do to twist colleagues’ arms.
“As to whether or not he deserves any of the blame whether this thing falls apart, you can’t have it both ways. On one hand, he and his allies project an aura of strength, of invincibility and legislative genius,” said James Wallner, a former long-serving Senate Republican aide.
“But because he’s projected this ability to control everything, he’s put himself potentially in an impossible situation,” he added.
If conservative Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Lee dig in their heels and refuse to support the healthcare bill because it doesn’t include reforms that are unacceptable to moderates such as Portman and Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), there’s not much McConnell can do about it.
“Senate leaders are not powerful positions,” Wallner said. “They don’t have any real power apart from what their colleagues defer to them and give to them informally because that’s the way you do business.
“If any one or group of members wants to come along and defer to the leaders, there’s not really a lot of stuff the leaders can do — nowhere near to what the leaders in the House can do to enforce discipline,” he said.
Failure to pass legislation to repeal and replace ObamaCare would result in a furious round of finger pointing.
Presidents usually get the praise or the blame when things go right or wrong in Washington, but Republican voters see Congress as chiefly to blame for Trump’s stalled agenda, according to The Associated Press.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), meanwhile, has already passed a healthcare bill through his chamber.
A GOP aide familiar with the negotiations said McConnell will deserve all the credit if the bill passes and acknowledges he will likely bear the blame if it collapses.
“If we do succeed, McConnell deserves a ton of credit,” the source said. “Every decision that’s being made is being made by Mitch McConnell and his team.
The aide said McConnell had little choice but to skip committee hearings and votes because Republicans only have a one-seat majority on the Health Committee and a two-seat majority on the Finance panel. There’s no guarantee the legislation could have passed both.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) praised McConnell’s handling of the bill.
“He’s been a real leader throughout this exercise – making sure the entire conference has had ample opportunity to offer input,” Hatch said in a statement to The Hill.
He warned that if GOP critics don’t unite behind the bill, “we’ll be on a fast track toward socialized medicine.”