Mitch McConnell (right) with Rand Paul in 2010. Photo by Gage Skidmore.
Despite a recent show of comity, it is no secret that President Trump has been frustrated with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for failing to deliver on key Republican priorities, notably the repeal, replacement or overall obliteration of the Affordable Care Act.
It is a point of pride for the president that he is neither schooled, nor particularly interested, in how the nation’s capital works. Yet it might be slowly dawning on Trump that the main reason the majority leader has been unable to achieve their shared goals is that he does not, in fact, have a working majority. McConnell, Trump and the GOP agenda are hostage to a small group of senatorial RINOs – Republicans in Name Only.
Just in case the president has not yet caught on to this fact, there is a good chance it will penetrate once the Republican drive to pass some sort of tax bill runs into many of the same roadblocks as the health care legislation. I highly doubt any major tax bill will pass in 2017, and there is a good chance it won’t pass in 2018 either – especially not relating to individual income taxes. But this may hold the key to the entire Trump presidency. The president’s term runs until January 2021, which means he will have a new Congress with which to work, beginning just over 14 months from now. It could be a more congenial one.
It would be a good idea for someone in Trump’s inner circle to suggest that he work as hard as possible to expand McConnell’s current 52-48 majority. With 10 Democratic seats up for grabs next year in states that Trump carried against Hillary Clinton, it would not be unreasonable for the GOP to shoot for a net gain of at least three to five seats. That won’t be enough to override Democratic opposition on matters requiring 60 votes under Senate rules, but it would likely give McConnell enough maneuvering room to pass significant legislation, including taxes and major changes to the Affordable Care Act, under budget reconciliation procedures that require only 50 votes plus a tiebreaker from Vice President Mike Pence.
The old line about the Senate is that it consists of 100 people who each believe they should be president. Two of the Senate’s four RINOs, Arizona’s John McCain and Kentucky’s Rand Paul, have already run for the office. McCain proudly called himself a “maverick” Republican when he ran against Barack Obama in 2008. Paul was unable to gain any traction and was quickly bounced from the GOP field that Trump dominated in the 2016 Republican primaries.
McCain, a Vietnam veteran and prisoner of war who has been in the Senate since 1986, considers himself a statesman and a conciliator, and plainly thinks of Trump as neither. Paul is heir to his father Ron Paul’s endless aspirations to the White House. For both, the animosity with Trump has gotten personal. Trump questioned why McCain should be viewed as a war hero merely because he was captured (McCain endured more than five years of brutality), and he noted during the primary campaign that he had refrained from attacking Paul’s appearance even though “there’s plenty of subject matter there.”
The other two prominent RINOs are Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine. Collins is the last Republican from New England in the Senate, and she has evidently reached the conclusion that the way to keep her job is to not be much of a Republican at all. Just like every Senate Democrat, she has opposed every effort by her party to overhaul the Affordable Care Act, and has never been satisfied with any attempt to address her concerns. Collins considered running for governor in Maine next year, but she would likely have faced a tough primary challenge from a more mainstream Republican. She opted to keep her current seat instead, at least through the end of her term in 2021.
Murkowski literally inherited her Senate seat from her father, Frank Murkowski. The senior Murkowski resigned in 2002 to become governor, and then appointed his daughter – who had entered the family business via the Alaska House of Representatives – to replace him. The ensuing nepotism scandal led Alaskans to strip future governors of the power to directly appoint senators to fill vacant seats.
Murkowski was elected in her own right in 2004, but then lost the GOP nomination to a Tea Party candidate in 2010. She clung to office, however, by running a successful independent write-in campaign, the first in the Senate since Strom Thurmond in 1954. Murkowski was re-elected last year, but it was the third consecutive time she led the field with less than 50 percent of the vote. In case it isn’t clear by now, Lisa Murkowski’s chief legislative goal is and always will be the continued public employment of Lisa Murkowski. She is best viewed as the sort of “Senator Pothole” epitomized by former New York Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, another Republican who eschewed weighty matters of policy but kept his office by boasting of how much bacon he could bring home from Washington.
McCain is a man of strong principle – but his principles are rooted in the Republican Party and the Senate as they existed in 1986, when he arrived in the chamber. Twice this year, he was instrumental in blocking Affordable Care Act overhauls because he objected to the process and party-line manner in which they were presented. Yet those are the political realities of our era.
McCain himself may not be around to see how these events play out. He was diagnosed this summer with an aggressive form of brain cancer – the same type that killed his former Senate colleague Ted Kennedy as the Affordable Care Act was being passed in 2010. Now, although there is absolutely nothing to cheer in McCain’s illness, it does promise to change the political calculus in the Senate, because it is unlikely the Arizona senator will be able to finish his term, which has more than five years remaining. His seat could become vacant even before next year’s elections.
Apart from McCain, the remaining three RINOs can be counted on to display malleable principles and flexible priorities depending on how they see it benefitting them, as much as their constituents. McConnell will do his best to work with them to pass a GOP agenda, which then must navigate further political shoals in the House. Trump would be well advised to help him, assuming the president is willing to be advised at all.