Crumbling Health Bill Dents McConnell Image as Top Tactician

Jul 19, 2017

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell (right)
Credit NPR

When the banner Republican effort to scuttle and rewrite President Barack Obama's health care law crumbled this week, the falling debris popped a hefty dent into Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's image as a dauntless legislative tactician three chess moves ahead of everyone else.

His two attempts to craft legislation replacing Obama's law have collapsed for lack of GOP support. Republican opposition seems likely to doom a vote next week on his Plan C, a bill simply repealing much of Obama's statute.

Along the way, conservative Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., accused McConnell of a "serious breach of trust" by telling moderates that proposed Medicaid cuts would not occur. His fellow Kentucky Republican, Sen. Rand Paul, was a constant thorn and the most vociferous opponent of McConnell's effort. And Utah Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, gave party leaders little advance word when he and Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, deserted the bill late Monday, effectively killing it in the dark of night.

"This has been a very, very challenging experience for all of us," McConnell told reporters Tuesday.

And in a telling attempt to shift the focus, he answered a question about how he'd explain the health care defeat to GOP voters by citing the Senate's confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, the repeal of some Obama regulations and his plans to tackle a tax overhaul and infrastructure legislation.

Democrats, who often grudgingly marvel at McConnell's moves, kept waiting for him to pull a rabbit from what turned out to be an empty hat. They said he overreached by turning a bill reshaping Obama's law into one that cut nearly $1 trillion in taxes over a decade and sliced almost $800 billion from Medicaid, the health care program for the poor, disabled and nursing home patients.

They say he boxed himself in by rushing to deliver on his party's seven-year-old overpromise to repeal Obama's law. That proved an arduous task that angered tens of millions who've benefited from the statute, especially with much of McConnell's work performed behind closed office doors.

"I don't have any sympathy for him," said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., his party's No. 2 Senate leader. "I assume he felt duty-bound as the Republican leader" to pursue repeal of Obama's law. But he said McConnell should have known that "rewriting the health care system of America on the fly and in secret was not going to work."

A senator for 33 years, the 75-year-old McConnell has a reputation for weaving compromises that avert onrushing political disasters. He cut several such deals during Obama's years in the White House, including major budget pacts in 2011 and 2013.

But once Donald Trump won the presidency and Republicans took House and Senate control this year, it became McConnell's job to play offense. In particular, he is quarterback of the Senate GOP drive to repeal Obama's law.

That's not going to happen, at least in the immediate future. To pass the legislation, McConnell needs no fewer than 50 of the 52 GOP senators to back it and overcome unbroken Democratic opposition, and he doesn't have them.

Assessing Democrats as unwilling to help them scrap Obama's law — which they were — McConnell ignored them from the start. That tactic ignored his own advice from his 2016 memoir, "The Long Game," in which he criticized Democrats for passing Obama's 2010 statute "without regard for the views of the other side."

"Once you only have 52 votes and you try to do a bill just with Republicans, you set yourself up for a nearly impossible task," said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

McConnell's latest bill would cut Medicaid, letting insurers sell policies with negligible coverage and rolling back Obama taxes on the health care industry. Getting GOP votes for it is a Rubik's cube-like problem because conservatives and moderates have mutually exclusive demands, like whether to slash Medicaid or erase Obama regulations protecting consumers.

Establishment Republicans don't fault McConnell.

"You have first- and second-term twerps that think they know the solution to everything," said former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., who retired in 2007.

Others blamed the chamber's tight partisan arithmetic, plus special rules Republicans used to prevent Democratic procedural tactics that could have killed the bill but also limited how sweeping the measure could be.

"This was always going to be a difficult process and I'm not sure how we would have handled it differently," said No. 2 Senate GOP leader John Cornyn of Texas.

Movement conservatives who have often accused McConnell of not being an aggressive enough champion of their causes do fault him.

"A leader will tell them to honor their promises and get on board," said Andrew Roth, top lobbyist for the conservative Club for Growth. "And if they don't, they need to subject their senators to public scrutiny as to why they're flip-flopping."

"Mitchcare collapses," read a statement by Ken Cuccinelli, who heads the Senate Conservatives Fund, which has clashed with McConnell. Cuccinelli called the bill's demise "an embarrassing defeat for someone who portrays himself as a strategic genius."