Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s message Saturday night at the Kentucky GOP’s annual Lincoln Day Dinner was that governing is hard, but the Senate is doing more than some might be portraying.
“We have very different points of view even within the Republican conference, not to mention the Democrats,” McConnell told the attendees.
“A lot of people look at all that and find it frustrating, messy,” he said “Well, welcome to the democratic process. That’s the way it is.”
Saturday’s dinner, a celebration of the Republican Party’s electoral gains over the last year, comes as President Donald Trump has taken McConnell to task in recent days for his handling of the failed vote to repeal parts of Obamacare and for not moving legislation to raise the debt ceiling.
But the majority leader steered clear of talking directly about his relationship with the President or any other drama unfolding in Washington – whether that be Trump’s pardoning Friday of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, his directive banning transgender military recruits or his continued attacks on members of McConnell’s Senate majority, including the majority leader himself.
McConnell’s focus in his remarks was to remind Kentucky Republicans that there are things happening in Washington, but governing is difficult and sometimes slow – 24-hour cable news cycle and Twitterverse or not.
“Governing is challenging from time to time,” he said, adding that the Senate was working on things that might not be so apparent, such as confirming administration nominees.
“We’re deeply involved in the personnel side of what any administration does,” McConnell said.
McConnell reminded the crowd that the push for tax reform would be next – and likely not a very bipartisan effort, he said
And tax reform is needed to invigorate what is now only “tepid growth” in America, he said.
“Growth is not what they are interested in,” McConnell said, referring to Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party.
“We don’t expect much help in getting this tax code in a better place,” he said.
Sticking to the GOP agenda
Meanwhile, as he traveled around his home state this week, McConnell has downplayed speculation that he and Trump are sparring, despite reports that the two men haven’t spoken since a tense August 9 phone call.
Sources with knowledge of the call said the exchange quickly devolved into a shouting match, as an irate Trump expressed his frustrations about the congressional investigation into Russian interference in the US election last year and fumed about a Russia sanctions bill Congress passed that would tie Trump’s hands on the matter.
But on Thursday morning – just minutes after Trump criticized McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan on Twitter for not tying debt-ceiling legislation to a popular Veterans Affairs bill – McConnell got up at a Kentucky Farm Bureau breakfast and delivered mostly glowing remarks about the hard work the Trump administration is doing in helping Congress roll back regulations and pursue comprehensive tax reform.
Minutes later, Trump tweeted again about his frustration with McConnell.
“The only problem I have with Mitch McConnell is that, after hearing Repeal & Replace for 7 years, he failed! That should NEVER have happened!” he wrote.
Earlier this month, McConnell sparked similarly critical tweets from Trump after the Kentucky Republican said at an event in his home state that Trump had “excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process.”
But if Trump is looking to get into a public fight with McConnell, the majority leader has not been engaging. That’s for good reason. When Congress returns to Washington next month, McConnell will have to work with Trump to raise the debt ceiling, pass a budget and also pass a spending bill to keep the government funded. That doesn’t even begin to address the massive tax cuts McConnell hopes to enact alongside Trump.
Back in Kentucky, voters are watching the tensions between McConnell and Trump closely. Trump remains popular in the state after winning the 2016 election by more than 30 points, and it’s clear that going head to head with Trump isn’t likely to help McConnell with voters here.
“McConnell’s supposed to get people together to vote for what the President wants and he’s not doing it,” Henry Johnson, a Kentucky voter, told CNN Thursday at the state fair.
In a statement Wednesday, McConnell rejected reports that he and Trump aren’t seeing eye to eye.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us, and we are committed to advancing our shared agenda together, and anyone who suggests otherwise is clearly not part of the conversation,” McConnell said.