Coronavirus clash hands Mitch McConnell his 'toughest challenge as majority leader'

The Senate's top Republican has struggled to placate anti-spending conservatives, politically vulnerable incumbents and a mercurial president.
Image: Senate Majority Leader McConnell arrives to a luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., arrives at a luncheon on Capitol Hill on Thursday.Erin Scott / Reuters
By Sahil Kapur

WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has navigated his way out of predicaments before, but internal party divisions over coronavirus aid and an unpopular president may have put him in his toughest jam yet as Republican leader.

In one wing, he faces a mutiny from conservatives who are dead set against new spending and the $1 trillion price tag on another round of aid to prop up the stagnant economy.

In direct opposition, he must satisfy a group of anxious incumbents who face tough re-election fights in the fall and are desperate to deliver relief for their ailing states.

Further complicating matters, he has to deal with a mercurial President Donald Trump's throwing a wrench into his efforts.

McConnell's results will be judged by voters up and down the ballot as the crisis rages on, with coronavirus cases in the U.S. topping 4 million and the economy crippled. He has struggled to get Republican to agree to even begin negotiations with Democrats.

"This may be McConnell's toughest challenge as majority leader," said Brian Riedl, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute who is former chief economist for Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

The disagreements are delaying an expected rollout of a $1 trillion coronavirus package until early next week, McConnell said, all but guaranteeing that benefits for millions of jobless Americans will shrink. And the proposal is sure to face opposition from Democrats, who are skeptical and have the power to block it.

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There's a lot on the line for McConnell, including his job. Control of the Senate hangs in the balance, with concerns that Trump's falling poll numbers threaten to take Republicans down with him.

McConnell, a senator for 35 years, is also up for re-election in a Republican-friendly state against Democrat Amy McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot who is painting him as eager to help big businesses but not ordinary Kentuckians.

Some Republicans say the last time McConnell faced such a daunting task was during the 2017 effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which failed in the Senate.

That effort, Riedl said, as well as the 2013 push by conservatives to defund the law, caused a "civil war" among Republicans that McConnell lost.

"Other than that, he has been remarkably good at uniting the conference," Riedl said.

'He holds his cards close to the vest'

Many colleagues don't fault McConnell for the fractiousness.

"He's very good in moments like this. He listens. He's very quiet. He holds his cards close to the vest," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. "We'll find openings. It's in everybody's interest to continue to help people with the virus."

McConnell's past political victories give his members confidence that he will ultimately prevail.

"He's generally got a good handle on what's achievable," said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss. "It's a very, very important issue. But I expect that he will acquit himself."

Still, McConnell's move to tightly control the drafting of legislation sparked some complaints Thursday from senators who say they remain in the dark.

"Mitch told us discussions were ongoing. That's the furthest we got into it," said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who has clashed with McConnell in the past. "That's unfortunately a pattern we see a lot. Bills are drafted behind closed doors and then thrown at the conference at the last minute."

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., criticized the direction of the McConnell-backed proposal, saying, "I'm not going to agree to authorize a dime until we have clearly understood what we've already done."

But he didn't blame McConnell, saying he's "not going to get into personal evaluations" when asked how McConnell has handled the issue.

'He's got this'

Colleagues see McConnell as an effective strategist who is keenly attentive to members' concerns and deft at reading the politics of the moment. Critics say he uses those talents cynically to accumulate power.

"I don't think I've ever seen any equal in terms of strategy," said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas. "And I've been around here a long time."

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., piled on the pressure Thursday, accusing McConnell of crafting "a partisan bill" that he described as "un-unified, unserious, unsatisfactory."

"The Republican disarray and dithering has seriously, potentially deadly consequences for tens of millions of Americans," Schumer told reporters as details were emerging.

A Senate Republican leadership staffer acknowledged that the new round of relief is a challenge because some members are content not to fund extra COVID-19 aid after the $2.2 trillion CARES Act.

But the staffer, who discussed internal dynamics on condition of anonymity, argued that a bigger challenge for McConnell was unifying the conference against voting on President Barack Obama's Supreme Court pick Merrick Garland in 2016, which had "more on the line" for his legacy.

Allies say McConnell has overcome other difficult challenges — like averting the so-called fiscal cliff of late 2012, managing government funding battles during the ascent of the tea party and rescuing financial institutions during the 2008 crash.

Brian McGuire, a former speechwriter for McConnell, said McConnell has handled many complicated challenges, and the COVID-19 relief push is one. He argued that confirming Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in 2018 was an even tougher task.

"He's got this," McGuire said.

Julie Tsirkin contributed.