For Mitch McConnell, Tuesday was about as bad as it could get.
A vulnerable incumbent senator, Luther Strange, lost handily to Roy Moore, who used the Senate leader as his campaign punching bag. McConnell pulled the plug — again — on repealing Obamacare. One of his close allies, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), announced his retirement.
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And President Donald Trump is back on McConnell’s case, dubbing him “weak” at a private dinner with conservative activists on Monday evening.
McConnell’s job is in no immediate danger, and he hopes to pivot quickly to tax reform. Yet months of woes are now taking their toll on the GOP leader’s agenda, and his caucus.
“It’s been a hard summer for all of us,” admitted Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 GOP senator.
Asked Tuesday if he was having a “tough day,” McConnell ignored the question. And that was before Corker announced his retirement and Moore won.
“We haven’t given up on changing the American health care system,” McConnell said. “We’re not going to be able to do that this week, but it still lies ahead of us, and we haven’t given up on that.”
McConnell’s long-shot bid to save Strange, who had Trump’s backing as well, failed spectacularly as the former Alabama attorney was trounced by Moore in the deep red state. And that soon could be a daily problem for McConnell. Moore, twice ousted as a judge on the Alabama Supreme Court for defying federal edicts, has openly said he wants to dump McConnell as the top Senate Republican.
“Judge Roy Moore in the U.S. Senate means the END of Mitch McConnell’s reign as Majority Leader,” Moore vowed in one fundraising pitch. Moore now faces Democrat Doug Jones in a Dec. 12 runoff.
Moore’s win came just hours after McConnell, faced with unwavering opposition from a trio of his GOP colleagues, was forced to ditch the latest GOP proposal to repeal and replace Obamacare. McConnell’s choices were grim: Hold another failed vote, or concede another defeat.
McConnell chose to call it quits and perhaps try again next year. Yet it was another embarrassing setback in McConnell’s failed months-long effort to overturn the 2010 Affordable Care Act, and it came with an even heavier price this time — more problems for McConnell from the occupant of the Oval Office.
Trump spent much of August publicly bashing McConnell in August but stopped after the two held a private meeting several weeks ago. But now the president is back badmouthing the Senate leader again.
During a dinner with conservative activists on Monday night at the White House, Trump laid into McConnell, according to two attendees. Trump told the activists that McConnell was “weak” because he couldn’t pass the GOP health care plan, and the president complained at length about how Republicans had failed him on the issue, while asking the activists what they should do next.
Trump added that he was disappointed in McConnell for not changing the Senate filibuster rule so that only 51 votes are needed to pass legislation, also dubbing his resistence to the idea as “weak.” That criticism does not ring true to Senate Republicans, given that Democrats have barely been able to use the filibuster due to McConnell mostly holding party-line votes.
A McConnell spokesman declined to comment.
A person briefed on the meeting noted Trump took aim at far more than McConnell during the meeting, distancing himself from Strange and whacking Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as well. Trump called McCain “disgraceful” on health care and mocked his thumbs-down gesture on the Senate floor against a GOP proposal in July, complete with a facial expression, attendees said.
After the race was called Tuesday, McConnell vowed to support Moore in the Senate despite the candidate’s opposition to him personally.
“He ran a spirited campaign centered around a dissatisfaction with the progress made in Washington. I share that frustration,” McConnell said of Moore in a statement. “Senate Republicans will be as committed to keeping Alabama’s Senate seat in Republican hands with Roy Moore as we were with Luther Strange.”
McConnell’s support in the Republican Conference remains solid despite what Trump, Moore, and former Trump aide Steve Bannon say about him. Bannon has launched a crusade against the Senate leader and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Ohio) since leaving the White House.
“It’s not even a close question there,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said of McConnell’s position. “It’s not easy being majority leader, which is why many people choose not to run for it.”
The way to put an end to anti-McConnell challengers, Cornyn said, is “you win. Really, it’s about that simple.”
After ushering through the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, McConnell has found himself in a box. Trump will receive the lion’s share of credit for legislative victories that McConnell or Ryan engineer, but the president has made clear he’ll blame the GOP leaders when bills falter.
Trump might turn to Democrats again in search of victories — as he did earlier this month to put off a fight over the budget and debt ceiling — which would again test McConnell and Ryan’s loyalty to the president.
Some Republicans said at least in the case of Obamacare, McConnell was not to blame for the failure of the proposal pushed by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.).
“The whole health care thing right now was sort of inspired by Graham and Cassidy, and the president, who kept it alive. I don’t think Mitch has much ownership other than to try to see if there’s a path forward,” Thune said.
Thune added that Strange’s situation in Alabama was a “unique set of circumstances. I think everybody in a lot of these places, particularly primary voters, want to send a message to Washington.”
Strange, the former Alabama attorney general, was appointed to the seat by former Gov. Robert Bentley (R), who later resigned in a sex scandal. Strange’s appointment didn’t sit well with Alabama voters. The Senate Leadership Fund, a pro-McConnell super PAC, dumped $9 million into the race in a bid to derail Moore, but he proved far too strong. And Trump’s endorsement of Strange proved to be too little, too late.
“What happens today in Alabama with Luther Strange has nothing to do with Mitch McConnell. It has everything to do with Alabama,” Sen. Cory Gardner (Colo.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said before the results were tallied.
Personal loyalty to McConnell remains high among his colleagues. They remember him as a two-term chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. He led the fight against former President Barack Obama for eight years. And he is the one that got Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, which is Trump’s only real win in Congress so far.
When it comes to who to blame for a difficult year with just a 52-seat majority, McConnell’s colleagues refuse to point to the majority leader as the source of the problem. They criticize each other, not McConnell.
“You can only fight with the troops that you’ve got,” Sen. Roy Blunt said of McConnell’s predicament.