Mitch McConnell wants you to know that congressional Republicans aren’t “underperforming” — it just looks that way because Donald Trump doesn’t understand how Washington works.
“Our new president, of course, has not been in this line of work before,” the Senate Majority Leader told a Rotary Club in northern Kentucky on Monday. “I think he had excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process.”
“Part of the reason I think people think we’re underperforming,” McConnell continued, “is because of too many artificial deadlines unrelated to the reality of the legislature which may have not been understood.”
From one angle, McConnell’s assessment looks fair. It took President Obama more than a year to push the Affordable Care Act through Congress; Republicans tried to write, amend, and pass an alternative health-care plan in a matter of weeks. After several drafts of Trumpcare failed to garner majority support in the Senate, the hasty, haphazard process climaxed with McConnell & Co. drafting a plan for reforming one-sixth of the American economy over lunch, and then trying to pass it before sunrise the next morning.
And, certainly, President Trump has not demonstrated patience with — let alone understanding of — the complexities inherent to the legislative process.
That said, congressional Republicans’ initial plan was to repeal Obamacare almost immediately upon taking office, and then draft a replacement over the ensuing months. President Trump actually intervened to slow down that effort back in January, when he demanded Republicans repeal and replace the health-care law simultaneously.
Further, the “artificial deadlines” Paul Ryan and McConnell embraced when pushing Trumpcare had less to do with the president’s grandiose expectations, than with the historic unpopularity of the GOP bill. McConnell worked feverishly to pass his health-care legislation out of the Senate before the July 4 recess, out of concern that the more his colleagues heard from their constituents, the less willing they’d be to vote for a bill that would condemn thousands of Americans to preventable deaths. As Lindsey Graham infamously put it, “This [bill] is not like a fine wine — it doesn’t get better over time.”
McConnell needed to rush Obamacare repeal because the GOP’s primary goal for health-care reform — cutting hundreds of billions of dollars in aid to the poor, so as to finance tax cuts for the rich — is opposed by a large majority of the American public, every major stakeholder in the health-care sector, and most of the party’s own voters. Donald Trump didn’t force McConnell to use the public’s frustrations over high medical costs as cover for an attempt to retrench the welfare state.
Anyhow, the White House did not take kindly to Mitch’s buck-passing. The president’s social-media director Dan Scavino offered McConnell this pungent reply.
Hours later, the president himself struck a similar note.
There have been simmering tensions between the president and Majority Leader for a while now. This is the closest they’ve ever come to a boil. But Trump’s decision to endorse sitting Alabama senator Luther Strange on Tuesday — over far-right challengers who were explicitly campaigning on their allegiance to the president and antipathy for McConnell — suggests that the president’s tweets may be louder than his bite.
Still, Trump’s frustrations with the Senate’s 60-vote threshold — and his incredulous outrage over McConnell’s refusal to eliminate this self-imposed obstacle to the Republican agenda — aren’t going away. And if the president ever decides he wants to press the issue, he should have little trouble mobilizing the conservative base against the Majority Leader.
The tea party’s central charge against the Republican Establishment has long been that those RINO squishes have more power to advance conservative goals than they’re willing to use. Demagogues have deployed this allegation to great effect, even at times when it was patently untrue. In 2013, Ted Cruz convinced much of the GOP base that Republicans could force Barack Obama to repeal his own signature law, if only they had the spine to shut down the government.
If a junior senator could whip up such a frenzy with false charges of Establishment fecklessness, imagine how much hell a sitting president could raise by levying an honest one. While it’s true that the abolition of the filibuster wouldn’t have saved Obamacare repeal, it would (almost certainly) be necessary to revive that effort. By the time John McCain pulled the plug on Trumpcare, the Senate parliamentarian had already ruled that critical parts of the GOP’s health-care plan couldn’t be passed through reconciliation (and, thus, would be subject to a Democratic filibuster).
What’s more, the president’s plans to restrict legal immigration; finance a border wall; increase defense spending; repeal Dodd-Frank; and pass permanent, deficit-expanding tax reforms will be all but impossible to enact without 60 Senate votes.
McConnell’s reluctance to kill the filibuster may reflect the conservative movement’s best interests. Right now, thanks to the rules of budget reconciliation, legislation that cuts the federal deficit can be passed with a simple majority vote — but all new regulations, or expansions to the welfare state, require 60. This state of affairs is an asset for the party of “small government.” Assuming that Democrats are too smitten with norms to abolish the filibuster the next time they gain power, it makes some sense for conservatives to keep it around.
But this is a complicated argument, and one McConnell can’t really make in public without alerting progressives to their interest in the filibuster’s elimination. And the Majority Leader’s other likely motives for retaining the rule are politically indefensible. One reason for the filibuster’s resilience is that it increases the power of every individual senator, by giving each the unilateral authority to change the vote threshold on legislation. Another is that the filibuster allows majority parties to avoid voting on legislation that they claim to support to appease their base, but don’t actually want to spend the necessary political capital to pass.
Conservative activists have no interest in preserving these prerogatives.
And the tea party certainly doesn’t give a damn about protecting the Senate’s sacred norms — let alone an anti-democratic one that appears nowhere in the Constitution.
All of which is to say: If Trump ever decides he wants McConnell demoted, a GOP civil war over the filibuster could ensue.