Health vote chal­lenges Trump and McCon­nell

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY SEAN SUL­LI­VAN, ABBY PHILLIP AND PAUL KANE

Pres­i­dent Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion was still in its first hours when Mitch McCon­nell snagged an open seat next to him for a pri­vate chat at his in­au­gu­ral lun­cheon. For more than 15 min­utes, McCon­nell did most of the talk­ing. The new pres­i­dent lis­tened keenly.

Eleven days later, McCon­nell had a front-row seat as Trump an­nounced Neil M. Gor­such as his pick for the Supreme Court, the cul­mi­na­tion of the Se­nate ma­jor­ity leader’s ad­vice dur­ing the cam­paign on how to han­dle the court va­cancy: Con­sult the Fed­er­al­ist So­ci­ety, and make a list of prospects. Trump did that.

For months, McCon­nell, the con­sum­mate political insider, has been dis­pens­ing his coun­sel to Trump, the ul­ti­mate out­sider, who has been ab­sorb­ing the Ken­tuck­ian’s words. The dy­namic has pro­vided a de­gree of sta­bil­ity in the still-form­ing re­la­tion­ship be­tween the low-key Se­nate leader and the lo­qua­cious pres­i­dent, who are starkly dif­fer­ent types of peo­ple.

But cracks have also emerged in their part­ner­ship, most no­tably when Trump has ca­su­ally

sug­gested that McCon­nell change the long-stand­ing rules of the Se­nate and McCon­nell has bluntly brushed him off.

Their frag­ile al­liance is about to face its big­gest chal­lenge yet in the next phase of the Repub­li­can ef­fort to over­haul the na­tion’s health-care laws. The work of re­vis­ing ma­jor parts of the act known as Oba­macare is now in the Se­nate’s hands after the House nar­rowly passed its own bill fol­low­ing months of de­struc­tive Repub­li­can in­fight­ing.

At stake is the long-term fu­ture of the Amer­i­can health-care sys­tem and the near-term fu­ture of the new Repub­li­can-con­trolled gov­ern­ment — which has yet to shep­herd any ma­jor leg­isla­tive pro­pos­als into law.

“Whether or not they are able to forge a pos­i­tive, per­sonal and work­ing re­la­tion­ship will be one of the early tests of this,” said for­mer Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee chair­man Michael Steele.

It will be as much a make-or­break mo­ment for McCon­nell as for Trump. The Se­nate leader has so far been able to fly be­low the radar on health care as House Repub­li­cans worked through their dis­agree­ments be­fore ul­ti­mately pass­ing a bill. If he can­not do the same, he is likely to be blamed for the col­lapse of the ef­fort to ful­fill a sig­na­ture GOP cam­paign prom­ise.

McCon­nell is cool and de­lib­er­a­tive while Trump is hot and im­petu­ous. But they have pri­vately developed what peo­ple close to them say is a re­spect­ful re­la­tion­ship.

In the 75-year-old ma­jor­ity leader, Trump, 70, sees a se­nior player in nav­i­gat­ing the ways of Wash­ing­ton, in both age and ex­pe­ri­ence. He views him as some­one on his level — or at least more on his level than many other Repub­li­cans, in­clud­ing House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (RWis.).

In some re­gards, McCon­nell has be­come a tu­tor to Trump. The two men speak reg­u­larly, with McCon­nell ini­ti­at­ing some calls to guide the novice pres­i­dent.

“Leader McCon­nell has been a great re­source in giv­ing guid­ance and coun­sel on a myr­iad of is­sues in the first few months,” said one se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial — talk­ing gener­i­cally about McCon­nell — who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss the re­la­tion­ship can­didly.

It was McCon­nell, after all, who helped hand Trump his only ma­jor con­gres­sional vic­tory dur­ing his first 100 days in of­fice: the con­fir­ma­tion of Gor­such to the high court. In nom­i­nat­ing Gor­such, who won wide praise in con­ser­va­tive cir­cles, Trump also aided McCon­nell by help­ing him pay off his gam­ble to hold the seat open dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

Those close to McCon­nell say that his re­la­tion­ship with Trump is rooted in try­ing to ac­com­plish the things Repub­li­cans cam­paigned on last year — no more, no less.

“The funny thing — ev­ery­body used to ask McCon­nell if he got along with Barack Obama,” said Josh Holmes, McCon­nell’s for­mer chief of staff. “And he said it’s ir­rel­e­vant if he got along. It’s, ‘Can we work to­gether?’ ”

But Holmes said McCon­nell is “al­ler­gic to drama” and “does not see the busi­ness of gov­ern­ing as a soap opera. It’s a busi­ness that should be han­dled pro­fes­sion­ally.” That ideal has been com­pli­cated time and again by Trump’s con­tro­ver­sial poli­cies and pro­nounce­ments.

That is one area where McCon­nell’s pri­vate lob­by­ing has made lit­tle dif­fer­ence. In an in­ter­view with The Wash­ing­ton Post ear­lier this year, McCon­nell made it clear that he was not a fan of Trump’s hos­tile Twit­ter habits. He said that he liked what Trump was do­ing a lot more than what he was writ­ing on so­cial media.

“We’ve had very can­did con­ver­sa­tions about that. And as you can see, my ad­vice has not made a bit of dif­fer­ence,” McCon­nell said.

The health-care de­bate in the Se­nate is ex­pected be a more­com­pli­cated en­deavor than Gor­such’s con­fir­ma­tion or the short­term gov­ern­ment-spend­ing deal the White House re­cently reached with Con­gress. It will test McCon­nell’s abil­ity to in­flu­ence Trump be­hind the scenes as never be­fore.

McCon­nell aides and al­lies are hop­ing that the White House will let the Se­nate work through its dif­fer­ences on health care with­out set­ting ar­ti­fi­cial dead­lines or try­ing to hurry the process ahead.

“We’re not go­ing to rush it,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), one of McCon­nell’s top lieu­tenants.

Se­nate Repub­li­cans have shown lit­tle re­gard for the con­tro­ver­sial House bill, sig­nal­ing that they are go­ing to write their own mea­sure. A work­ing group of 13 GOP sen­a­tors from dif­fer­ent parts of the ide­o­log­i­cal spec­trum is meet­ing twice a week to talk about how to move ahead.

“The Se­nate is the place, still, in my view, where you de­lib­er­ate, you have a say, you vote,” said Sen. Lind­sey O. Gra­ham (R-S.C.).

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has been work­ing with the Se­nate and House along “dual tracks” on health care, ac­cord­ing to the se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial. McCon­nell aides and al­lies said that they ex­pected the pres­i­dent’s team to be heav­ily in­volved in the process mov­ing for­ward.

But part of McCon­nell’s chal­lenge will be con­vinc­ing Trump that the me­thod­i­cal pace at which the Se­nate moves is nec­es­sary.

“Here [in Con­gress], it’s just the slow pace that is very hard for any­one com­ing out of the pri­vate sec­tor as a CEO to be­come com­fort­able with,” said Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) a Trump ally, in a re­cent in­ter­view.

But some of the long-stand­ing Se­nate norms and cus­toms to which McCon­nell claims to be com­mit­ted have been shrugged off by Trump as mere in­con­ve­niences in the law­mak­ing process. Trump sug­gested Tues­day on Twit­ter that it might be time to do away with the 60-vote Se­nate thresh­old on leg­is­la­tion, which em­pow­ers the mi­nor­ity party.

“We’re not go­ing to do that,” McCon­nell said dis­mis­sively later that day, ar­gu­ing that “it would fun­da­men­tally change the way the Se­nate has worked for a very long time.”

Even as the re­la­tion­ship be­tween McCon­nell and Trump has seen its share of ten­sions, it has gen­er­ally been better than Trump’s re­la­tion­ship with Ryan, who wa­vered in his sup­port of Trump dur­ing the cam­paign.

McCon­nell was never Trump’s big­gest cheer­leader in 2016, but he sup­ported him and gen­er­ally kept his crit­i­cism nar­rowly fo­cused on words Trump spoke or ac­tions he took that both­ered him.

That small mea­sure of loy­alty in the trenches has been re­mem­bered in the West Wing. McCon­nell, un­like Ryan, has not been sad­dled with a rep­u­ta­tion as a fair-weather friend.

“McCon­nell never took his eye off the ball and lost sight of the fact that at the end of the day, no mat­ter what in­di­vid­ual is­sue was hap­pen­ing, it was go­ing to be Trump or [Demo­cratic nominee Hil­lary] Clin­ton,” said Scott Jen­nings, a for­mer McCon­nell strate­gist, not­ing that he “far pre­ferred Trump.”

Even in Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion, which is filled with political new­com­ers, the reach of McCon­nell’s vast net­work of for­mer staffers and al­lies from more than 32 years in the Se­nate can be felt. McCon­nell’s wife, Elaine Chao, is Trump’s trans­porta­tion sec­re­tary. Amy Swonger, Trump’s head of the Se­nate leg­isla­tive af­fairs team, is a for­mer McCon­nell aide. So is An­drew Brem­berg, direc­tor of the Do­mes­tic Pol­icy Coun­cil.

On the whole, though, Trump’s team is largely bereft of ex­pe­ri­enced Se­nate tac­ti­cians. In ad­di­tion to deal­ing with Trump, McCon­nell deals mainly with Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, bud­get direc­tor Mick Mul­vaney and Vice Pres­i­dent Pence, ac­cord­ing to a per­son fa­mil­iar with the sit­u­a­tion.

For Trump, the health-care de­bate in the Se­nate will not only de­pend on how well he can work with McCon­nell. It is also likely to rest on his in­ter­ac­tion with rankand-file Repub­li­can sen­a­tors.

As the House was work­ing on its health-care bill, Trump held meet­ings with cen­trist and con­ser­va­tive GOP mem­bers as he sought to build sup­port for the mea­sure. But some McCon­nell al­lies doubt that kind of courtship will work as well in the Se­nate.

“I’m not sure that U.S. sen­a­tors that have been in of­fice for a long time and have their own opin­ions and ideas on leg­is­la­tion need some hand-hold­ing from out­side en­ti­ties,” said Jen­nings, the for­mer McCon­nell strate­gist. In the House, he added, “maybe they needed a lit­tle more prod­ding and guid­ing.”

EVAN VUCCI/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The re­la­tion­ships be­tween Pres­i­dent Trump, Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell (R-Ky.), left, and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) have been tested by the health-care-bill process.

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