Congress observers warn the President against insulting Mitch McConnell
The Senate majority leader is piloting the Republican agenda this fall
This week, President Donald Trump made Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell his latest Twitter punchline.
“Can you believe that Mitch McConnell, who has screamed Repeal & Replace for 7 years, couldn’t get it done. Must Repeal & Replace ObamaCare!” the President tweeted Thursday morning, one of three recent tweets in which the President called out the Kentucky Republican.
The bad news for Trump? McConnell is the man in control of his legislative legacy.
“Sen. McConnell has very thick skin and I don’t think this will necessarily hurt their ability to work together in the future on shared public policy goals,” said Michael Steel, a Republican strategist and former aide to House Speaker John Boehner. “But I hope the President recognizes that almost any substantial policy like tax reform is going to require the full and enthusiastic support of Sen. McConnell. That’s not going change anytime soon.”
Republicans return to Washington this fall with an ambitious agenda. They must raise the debt ceiling, reauthorize the Child Health Insurance Program, pass a budget and fund the government. It’s a herculean lift in even the best of political climate, and those are just the must-dos. Republicans are also gearing up for a major overhaul of the country’s tax code, a once-in-a-generation legislative opportunity that will bring with it a lobbying frenzy, more internal Republican schisms and tough decisions.
Outside observers and hill aides warn this is hardly the time for the President to publicly spar with the majority leader, and other senators have publicly come to their leader’s defense.
“’@SenateMajLdr has been the best leader we’ve had in my time in the Senate, through very tough challenges. I fully support him.’ -Hatch” Sen. Orrin Hatch’s office posted on Twitter. When another Twitter user joked that Hatch’s comments would include “pretty much every Senate Leader since the inception of the Union,” the office responded, “Exactly.”
Trump is clearly frustrated. The McConnell-led Senate failed last month to meet its seven-year campaign promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, leaving Trump without any significant legislative accomplishments more than six months into his administration. And McConnell publicly said earlier in the week that Trump had had – at times – expressed “excessive expectations” when it came to the legislative process.
“Senator Mitch McConnell said I had ‘excessive expectations,’ but I don’t think so. After 7 years of hearing Repeal & Replace, why not done?” he tweeted.
On Wednesday, according to a White House official, Trump and McConnell spoke over the phone about the future of health care. The White House official didn’t dispute that the conversation was animated.
But Trump is not the only one losing his patience.
On Capitol Hill, Trump’s open attacks of McConnell are seen as further irritating an already frayed relationship between the White House and Congress.
“The two Houses of Congress are in a way tribal institutions. When they are attacked from the outside they really tend to band together. The President just needs to be aware that an attack on the leader in the Senate is likely to weaken him across the board in the Senate,” said Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota.
Before the recess, Republican senators openly acknowledged that the executive and legislative branches had endured some growing pains in the first months of Trump’s administration. Republican aides have griped that Trump’s lack of clarity on health care muddled the GOP message and Republican senators have openly complained about the President’s tweeting habit and called on him to practice more focus and self-discipline.
“After his lack of engagement and basic understanding of policy and process have been on full display these last few weeks, the President’s tweets are mostly white noise at this point,” said a Senior GOP aide. “I’d guess that whoever advised him to go after the Majority Leader is the same adviser who failed to explain to him that changing the legislative filibuster to 50 votes wouldn’t have helped us pass health care.”
One GOP aide told CNN that Trump had even cost them on health care. The aide said that a contentious phone call with Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who ultimately voted against advancing the health care bill, hurt leadership’s ability to get Murkowski’s vote.
Republican leaders had hoped to get her on the skinny repeal, and they were cautiously optimistic she could flip. But after Trump’s testy exchange with her, they couldn’t win her over.
“He made it much harder,” the GOP source said.
In recent weeks, Republican senators growing frustration has morphed into action.
After Trump expressed his displeasure with his attorney general and former Sen. Jeff Sessions, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley declared publicly that as the chairman of the Senate’s judiciary committee, he wouldn’t entertain the idea of confirming another Attorney General if Sessions left his post. Sens. Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Chris Coons of Delaware introduced legislation that would further protect Robert Mueller, the special counsel overseeing the Justice Department’s Russia investigation, from being ousted.
Even before his Twitter screed against McConnell this week, Trump saw firsthand that he cannot will or bully legislation into being.
“We’re getting used to each other,” South Dakota Sen. John Thune, a member of leadership, said before the recess. “A lot of our members have never had a Republican administration. “This is a President, obviously, who’s never had to work with Congress. I just think there are some growing pains that come with that, but things we can work through.”
In the meantime, Trump is still demanding that McConnell do something on health care.
“Mitch, get back to work and put Repeal & Replace, Tax Reform & Cuts and a great Infrastructure Bill on my desk for signing. You can do it!” Trump tweeted.
CNN’s Manu Raju and Sara Murray contributed to this report.