McCon­nell: ‘The man in the mid­dle’

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

For seven years, US Se­na­tor Mitch McCon­nell vowed to slay Oba­macare if only his Re­pub­li­can Party con­trolled both cham­bers of Congress and the White House. Pull it out “root and branch,” he pledged. The 75-year-old Se­nate ma­jor­ity leader now has that lux­ury. But in­stead of bask­ing in the glow of his first ma­jor leg­isla­tive vic­tory in the Don­ald Trump era, McCon­nell is what a source close to the ma­jor­ity leader calls “the man in the mid­dle in an im­pos­si­ble spot.”

Late on Mon­day and again on Tues­day, af­ter a long strug­gle, McCon­nell’s ef­forts to re­peal all or por­tions of former Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s land­mark 2010 Af­ford­able Care Act and re­place them with less ex­pen­sive health­care came crash­ing down. With 52 Re­pub­li­can sen­a­tors in the 100-mem­ber cham­ber, McCon­nell could lose only two of his col­leagues on any bill that was op­posed by Democrats and still win with Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence cast­ing the tie-break­ing vote. Three times, he failed to muster the 50 sup­port­ers needed.

The man who epit­o­mized “the party of no” in Democrats’ eyes dur­ing Obama’s pres­i­dency, es­pe­cially when he slammed the door in Fe­bru­ary 2016 on Mer­rick Gar­land’s Supreme Court nom­i­na­tion, fell vic­tim to the “no” of fel­low Repub­li­cans. “We fi­nally get a chance to re­peal and re­place, and they don’t take ad­van­tage of it,” Trump, six months into his four-year pres­i­den­tial term, said on Tues­day.

Across Wash­ing­ton, there was dis­may Repub­li­cans could not de­liver on a prom­ise they assert helped them to as­sume con­trol in Jan­uary of Congress and the White House. “I am kind of shocked,” said Re­pub­li­can Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Dave Brat, of the con­ser­va­tive fire­brand House Free­dom Cau­cus that has been a thorn in the side of the Re­pub­li­can es­tab­lish­ment. His hand weak­ened, McCon­nell could be head­ing into fierce bud­get bat­tles, a tax re­form fight and a storm over leg­is­la­tion avoid­ing a gov­ern­ment debt de­fault that could shake global fi­nan­cial mar­kets. The re­sult has Democrats feel­ing em­bold­ened 16 months be­fore the next con­gres­sional elec­tions.

Rep­u­ta­tion Ques­tioned

Around town, the sphinx­like McCon­nell is known as a mas­ter of Se­nate rules, able to out­fox op­po­nents, giv­ing noth­ing away un­til he can strike at just the right mo­ment. The se­na­tor’s lead­er­ship job, a po­si­tion he yearned for in the years lead­ing up to his 2015 as­cen­sion, does not ap­pear to be in jeop­ardy. But this rocky run calls into ques­tion McCon­nell’s rep­u­ta­tion as a mas­ter tac­ti­cian and deal­maker that he earned as Re­pub­li­can mi­nor­ity leader un­der the Demo­cratic Obama.

It is “a real blow to Repub­li­cans in Congress gen­er­ally and to lead­er­ship,” said former Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Trent Lott, a Re­pub­li­can. More of the blame sits with the rank-and-file, Lott said. “The prob­lem in Wash­ing­ton to­day is not lack of lead­er­ship. The prob­lem is lack of fol­low­er­ship.” Had McCon­nell suc­ceeded, Lott said he would have been “con­sid­ered a ma­gi­cian” given the in­abil­ity of Repub­li­cans to co­a­lesce around health­care leg­is­la­tion for so many years.

A Re­pub­li­can op­er­a­tive with ties to McCon­nell saw a pos­si­ble sil­ver lin­ing: Fail­ure to pass health­care could boost chances for tax re­form or in­fra­struc­ture in­vest­ment if Repub­li­cans felt it a more ur­gent po­lit­i­cal im­per­a­tive to rack up a win for Trump be­fore the Novem­ber 2018 con­gres­sional elec­tions.

Fa­tal Flaws?

McCon­nell, a courtly Ken­tuck­ian who can ap­pear at pains to speak to re­porters nip­ping at his heels, won ac­co­lades in years past for cut­ting deals with Democrats to keep the gov­ern­ment oper­at­ing and mak­ing per­ma­nent most of former Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W Bush’s tax cuts. Those deals in­volved giv­ing vot­ers gov­ern­ment ser­vices and lower taxes. But Re­pub­li­can health­care leg­is­la­tion in­volves tak­ing some­thing away from mil­lions of lower-in­come peo­ple their med­i­cal cov­er­age.

“In part they (Repub­li­cans) mis­un­der­stood how dif­fi­cult it will be” to re­peal and re­place Oba­macare, former Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Tom Daschle, a Demo­crat, said in a phone in­ter­view. Re­pub­li­can rhetoric against Oba­macare was so “hy­per­bolic” it had to take pri­or­ity early in Trump’s pres­i­dency, but sen­a­tors lacked en­thu­si­asm for leg­is­la­tion, said Daschle, who like Lott lob­bies on be­half of health­care in­ter­ests.

Once boxed into health­care, McCon­nell took an­other con­tro­ver­sial step, one that many Repub­li­cans ques­tioned. In­stead of de­vel­op­ing a health­care bill in pub­lic, McCon­nell and his top aides, with the ad­vice of a 13-mem­ber group of male sen­a­tors, called the shots. McCon­nell said hear­ings were un­nec­es­sary, as health­care pol­icy had been in­ten­sively de­bated since Obama took of­fice in 2009. He said he was lis­ten­ing to sug­ges­tions of all of his 51 fel­low Re­pub­li­can sen­a­tors.

Many sen­a­tors felt dis­con­nected and ten­sions boiled over. As Mon­day wore on, mat­ters only got worse for McCon­nell. Re­pub­li­can Se­na­tor Ron John­son pub­licly ac­cused him of “a real breach in trust” in hard-charg­ing back-room ne­go­ti­a­tions. He threat­ened to with­hold sup­port for the bill. McCon­nell sup­port­ers ar­gued that no mat­ter how he han­dled the pri­vate ne­go­ti­a­tions, the Re­pub­li­can leader was dealt a dif­fi­cult hand from the out­set. “The ma­jor­ity leader is try­ing to keep all the frogs in the wheel­bar­row and it’s a tough job but he’s do­ing a good job,” said Re­pub­li­can Se­na­tor Lisa Murkowski. —Reuters

Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell talks to re­porters fol­low­ing the weekly Se­nate Re­pub­li­can pol­icy lun­cheon at the US Capi­tol Tues­day in Wash­ing­ton. —AFP

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