Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blamed Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, for the loss of a Senate seat in Alabama, and dialed back expectations for the 2018 agenda being promoted by some fellow Republicans.
Republicans will hold just 51 seats in the 100-member Senate when the winner of this month’s Alabama special election, Democrat Doug Jones, arrives in early January. That will make winning bipartisan support more critical for major legislation. McConnell laid the blame on Bannon, who plans to back other insurgent Republican candidates in the 2018 mid-term elections in an attempt to oust McConnell and his allies from leadership.
“The political genius on display, throwing away a seat in the reddest state in America, is hard to ignore,” McConnell said Friday at his year-end news conference in Washington.
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Bannon backed Roy Moore, who defeated the McConnell-backed choice in Alabama’s Republican primary before going on to lose to Jones after being accused of preying on teenage girls while he was in his 30s. Jones was the first Democrat to win a Senate seat in Alabama since 1992.
McConnell’s 2018 agenda will play out under tougher circumstances for a man who’s led Republicans in the Senate since 2007. In addition to a narrower majority, he faces a caucus that often splits, with clusters of moderates and conservatives regularly threatening to vote against his proposals.
The Kentucky lawmaker, 75, said he’d be meeting with President Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan in early January to discuss priorities for the year.
Although Ryan has made overhauling the government’s welfare system his major goal for 2018 and other Republicans are still pushing a full repeal of the Affordable Care Act, McConnell said both would be tough to accomplish unless they can be negotiated with Democrats, who can block the legislative process in the Senate despite being in the minority.
“There’s not much you can do on a partisan basis in the Senate with 52-48 or at 51-49, which would be the number of us for next year,” he said. “I don’t think most of our Democratic colleagues want to do nothing, and there are areas there I think we can get bipartisan agreement.”
Still, McConnell’s quest for bipartisanship in 2018 follows months of bare-knuckled maneuvers in which he tried to score key policy goals with only Republican votes. Those moves will make it tough for Democrats to embrace a different relationship, especially ahead of mid-term elections in November.
McConnell had mixed results this year. He permanently changed Senate filibuster rules in order to to confirm Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, in a 54-45 vote. And this week the Senate passed a sweeping tax-cut bill on a party-line 51-48 vote.
Yet McConnell’s setbacks have been notable. In July, the effort to repeal the ACA using procedures that avoided a Democratic filibuster fell short when three Republicans — John McCain of Arizona, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine — dashed the effort on a 49-51 vote. Plans to revive the debate with a new Republican proposal by Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana never got enough backing for a floor vote.
Much of the rest of the Senate’s time was spent on confirmations and using the Congressional Review Act to roll back 15 regulations put in place under President Barack Obama. Besides the tax bill and the Gorsuch’s confirmation, it was a year of few accomplishments for the first year of a new president’s term.
McConnell’s relationship with Trump has been strained at times, with the president upending negotiations with conservative senators on the health bill and castigating the majority leader repeatedly on Twitter. At one point in August, when Trump was asked by a reporter whether McConnell should step down, he said he’d withhold judgment.
Politically, McConnell also has seen big setbacks. Two Senate Republicans who’ve tussled with Trump — Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona — both announced their retirements, creating opportunities for Democrats to capture open seats in 2018.
—Read Republican Fissures Will Keep Getting Wider on ThinkAdvisor.