Political News

Why did Mitch McConnell swing and miss so badly on health care?

Posted July 19

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suffered his biggest defeat as Republican leader earlier this week when he failed to convince 49 of his colleagues to vote on the GOP's health care plan. The setback was particularly surprising since the Kentucky Republican has long been regarded as the preeminent political strategist in his party. So, why did he swing and miss on this one? And what does it mean for his future? And what does President Trump think of all of this? I wanted answers. So, I proposed an email back-and-forth with CNN Senior Congressional Reporter Manu Raju. He agreed. Our email exchange is below.

Cillizza: Alright, Manu.

The big story coming out of the health care collapse on Monday/Tuesday was that Donald Trump the dealmaker couldn't get a deal done.

But, as an unrepentant Congress nerd, I kept cycling back to Mitch McConnell. After all, it was McConnell who said the path to 50 votes was narrow but existed. It was McConnell who kept pushing throughout the July 4th recess to get skeptical colleagues on board. It was McConnell who came into all of this with the reputation as the guy who knows how to get tough things done.

In fact, I joked to another of our colleagues that the entire argument for health care passing the Senate -- in spite of lots and lots of contrary evidence -- boiled down to "McConnell is a legislative magician. He'll pull a rabbit out of a hat!"

He didn't. And as Ted Barrett wrote Tuesday night, that's a blow to McConnell's rep. My question for you is how BIG a blow? Sure, the Ron Johnsons of the world are grabbing headlines by refusing to say whether they have faith in McConnell . But how much opposition beyond the occasional malcontent is there for what McConnell did -- specifically on health care or how more generally he is doing as leader?

Raju: No question about it, McConnell made a major miscalculation in his handling of health care. His reputation for years has been his ability to see several moves down the chessboard, and figure out a way to outmaneuver his opponents and cut big deals at the end of the day, as he did with Joe Biden on multiple occasions over fiscal issues during the Obama years. That didn't happen here.

He made a strategic blunder by deciding to cut this deal behind closed doors, gave opponents a rallying cry when he created a working group that didn't consist of a female lawmaker, and didn't give some of his members the opportunity to vote on the bill through the committee process where they could make additional changes. Instead, he thought he could cut the deals through closed-door negotiations, and quickly push the bill through the chamber because GOP senators would believe that the alternative was better than the status quo.

But perhaps most importantly, the messaging operation was not effective in selling the American public on why this bill is good for them. There was not a clear message about this bill from the Senate GOP leadership office, White House or outside groups. This is a particular surprise for McConnell, given that he is relentlessly on-message and has been known to drive a campaign message better than just about anyone in politics.

Now, how does this affect his standing in the Senate GOP Conference, you ask? My sense is: Not much. He still has the support of a vast majority, if not virtually all of his members, and he has protected them during their reelection campaigns.

There isn't a clear challenger for his job as leader -- certainly no one would would have enough support to knock him off his perch. His leadership team, including his whip, Sen. John Cornyn, are loyal to him -- and it's highly doubtful anyone on his team would challenge him. Being the Senate majority leader is one of the toughest jobs in Washington, and many of his colleagues are sympathetic to that.

Last Congress, GOP senators were pleased that McConnell opened up the process more on the floor, giving them opportunities to offer amendments that were not afforded to them under Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid. But they realized there was only so much they could do with a Democratic president.

Now, they have a Republican president, and his members are expecting more results -- but they will likely blame their failure on Trump more than McConnell.

When I asked McConnell yesterday how would he explain this health care failure to voters, the first thing he said was: "Well, we have a new Supreme Court justice."

That's true -- if it weren't for McConnell denying Barack Obama's Supreme Court pick a confirmation vote, the GOP would not have Neil Gorsuch on the bench.

The question now is: Did McConnell spend that political capital by failing to get a health care bill passed?

Cillizza: It IS a weird miscalculation by McConnell -- especially on the messaging front.

My question: How much -- if any -- did Trump or the broader White House coordinate with McConnell on the messaging and the strategy of all of this? Was the decision to do it behind closed doors entirely a McConnell decision? Or a joint call made with White House input? Did McConnell choose to focus the message on how bad Obamacare was and how it was in a death spiral? Or was that Trump? Both?

My bigger question: What's the relationship like between McConnell and Trump? Clearly the President, stylistically, is not McConnell's cup of tea. But they are both in the same party with, theoretically, similar agendas. Right?

Raju: The strategy was all McConnell. Certainly, he was keeping the White House informed about what was going on, and he talks regularly with Vice President Pence, whom he invites to attend weekly strategy lunches. And Trump's heavy-handed approach that he employed with House members wouldn't work on senators, so McConnell was fine with Trump taking a lower-profile role.

McConnell doesn't really worry about personalities and relationships -- so it's not that big of a deal to him that Trump acts the way he does. But McConnell has publicly and privately expressed deep frustration with Trump's Twitter habits and the controversies he starts that put [the GOP] conference in an awkward position politically. And that frustration continues to linger.

Cillizza: Ok. So where do we go from here?

Trump, with his tweets and with this lunch today for all GOP senators, seems to want to stay on the health care bone. He seems to think -- or at least say -- that there is a way to make good on the repeal/replace promise. I'm skeptical. Very.

Where does McConnell come down on it? The political part of him has to know that the longer the party remains stuck in the morass of health care without a solution, the worse it is for him/them. But does he stay on health care a bit longer to give Trump what he wants?

Or does he throw the whole health care debate overboard after what I assume will be a failed repeal vote next week? And move on to the equally-fraught subject of tax reform?

Raju: McConnell gave Trump an extra few days on health care by saying he would hold the procedural vote early next week -- rather than at the end of this week. But that's about it. McConnell wants to move on and get into the August recess.

They still have to deal with very thorny issues, including raising the debt ceiling before the August recess. And when they return in September, they'll only have a few weeks to avoid a government shutdown. If McConnell pushes a plan to defund Planned Parenthood and fund the border wall, it could prompt a shutdown fight -- something he has repeatedly sought to avoid since becoming majority leader.

While tax reform is a regular talking point, the reality is the GOP is nowhere near agreement -- and in many ways rewriting the tax code is more complicated than health care. They are months away on that, and its chances are grim. And while McConnell and Trump want to do an infrastructure package, they'll need Democratic support in the Senate, which is unlikely if the plan stays the way the White House has envisioned it.

So this Congress, Chris, could be one with a dearth of accomplishments -- despite all-GOP control in Washington.

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