He’s been battered by President Donald Trump and had his vaunted legislative acumen called into question. Now, Mitch McConnell has a chance to put his cruel summer behind him.
Over the next week, the Senate majority leader will try one last time to rescind the Democratic health care law. At the same time, he’s put his political reputation on the line in Alabama, where his chosen candidate, incumbent Sen. Luther Strange, faces off against anti-establishment Roy Moore in a special Senate election on Tuesday.
The typically cautious McConnell is taking huge gambles in both cases, and will emerge as a hero or goat within the GOP depending on how it all turns out.
Asked about McConnell’s mood after a long meeting with the GOP leader on Wednesday, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) answered flatly: “Determined.”
McConnell will need everything to break his way to come out on top. Moore is leading in the polls and McConnell currently lacks the votes to repeal Obamacare.
McConnell could have sat back and let Strange fend for himself against Moore in the race to replace former Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). Likewise, the GOP leader could have snuffed out the Graham-Cassidy repeal bill weeks ago, rather than expose himself to another embarrassing defeat. It would have been defensible for him to announce that Republicans were moving on to tax reform — safer ground for a party in dire need of a legislative win.
Instead McConnell has gone all in.
“Sen. McConnell obviously would like to have a result. And I certainly understand his point of view,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in an interview this week about the majority leader’s efforts to pass the Graham-Cassidy bill. “Is it risky for him to ram it through and it fails? You never know.”
Success would go a long way in repairing McConnell’s bruised reputation with Trump and others who were surprised that he was unable to wrangle his conference to get behind a July repeal bill that collapsed in dramatic fashion on the Senate floor.
“It’s a disappointment, a disappointment indeed,” the crestfallen GOP leader said afterward.
Another defeat would be doubly humiliating. But McConnell may figure he has nothing left to lose. He’s already taken a huge political hit for failing to repeal Obamacare. And Republicans say privately that if McConnell didn’t take one final stab, he’d be lashed by Trump for giving up.
As for Alabama, McConnell, a onetime chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has always backed his incumbents against primary challenges. But the degree to which he’s done so for Strange is extraordinary: A super PAC aligned with the majority leader has spent millions in the race. Moore threatens to cause untold headaches for McConnell and his thin majority, and he has cited the McConnell-affiliated Senate Leadership Fund’s ads to paint Strange as a McConnell crony.
The election isn’t just about protecting one of his troops. Moore has made McConnell the punching bag of his campaign, railing against the Republican leader at every turn and calling for his removal as majority leader.
“That’s a race between Roy Moore and the Senate leadership,” said one Republican senator. The lawmaker said that forging ahead with another Obamacare repeal attempt is a “chancy” move by the typically cautious leader, given the shaky whip count.
“I would have preferred that we get our ducks in a row,” the senator said, adding that altogether it has the makings of “a hell of a week” for McConnell and the Republican Conference.
McConnell declined to weigh in on his prospects in the health care fight. Leaving the Capitol for the week on Wednesday, he gently chided a reporter hanging around the shuttered Senate.
“What are you doing around here on a day like this?” he said with a grin.
Colleagues described McConnell as equally invested in the health care bill and the Alabama race, and suggested that the fates of the two battles may be intertwined.
NRSC Chairman Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) said that momentum on health care could give Strange a last-minute boost, particularly after the appointed senator clamored for another vote during a recent lunch at NRSC headquarters.
Success is “not just good for Mitch McConnell. It’s good for Luther Strange and the entire Congress,” said Gardner.
McConnell clearly sees an upside in showing Trump and the GOP base that Republicans haven’t abandoned repeal. After weeks of declining to endorse the latest health care bill, McConnell has embraced Graham and Cassidy’s bill as the Sept. 30 deadline approaches, endorsing it on the floor and playing up the bill on social media.
But critics of McConnell’s approach say it could actually end up hurting incumbent GOP senators like Strange. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a staunch opponent the Graham-Cassidy plan, warned that primary voters, including those in Alabama, are not going to be excited about a bill viewed by conservatives as falling far short of actual repeal.
“People are frustrated. Not because we haven’t done anything, but because we haven’t done what we said we are going to do,” Paul said. “Put a clean repeal up against Graham-Cassidy in any Republican primary in the country and I win.”
Even if McConnell loses on both counts, his colleagues don’t expect to see much emotion from their dispassionate leader. He dubbed his memoir “The Long Game” for a reason.
“It will be a big win if we can get health care,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). “But, hey, if it doesn’t happen, we go on. McConnell will be alright.”