By Sean Sullivan and Mike DeBonis / The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., took sharp aim Friday at President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, as he looked ahead to some of the stark political and policy challenges the Republican Party will face in 2018.
At a year-end news conference in the Capitol, McConnell offered only a few concrete details on the legislative agenda for the year ahead, which will begin with difficult decisions for the majority party on immigration, health care and government spending priorities. He said he would meet with Trump and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., during the first week of January to discuss their to-do list.
Party leaders will also confront a demanding midterm campaign landscape that has been complicated by Bannon’s feud with McConnell and his attempt to use next year’s primaries to oust many GOP senators loyal to the leader.
Looming over all of it is the rocky relationship between McConnell and Trump, who ended the year on a note of solidarity but have also clashed publicly in recent months. One major variable in that relationship is Bannon and the extent to which Trump opts to side with him over McConnell.
“Well, let me just say this: The political genius on display of throwing away a seat in the reddest state in America is hard to ignore,” McConnell said in response to a question about whether he blamed Bannon for Democrat Doug Jones’ win in the special election for Senate in Alabama earlier this month. Bannon had backed Roy Moore, the controversial former Alabama chief justice who defeated McConnell’s choice in the GOP primary, Sen. Luther Strange.
Before the general election vote, Moore was accused of making unwanted sexual advances to teenage girls as young as 14 when he was in his 30s. He denied the allegations and continued his campaign, even as McConnell and other Senate Republican leaders called on him to drop out. Bannon, however, stood by Moore, even campaigning with him on the eve of the Dec. 12 election. Trump, who endorsed Strange in the primary, also waged a final push on Moore’s behalf.
Jones’ victory marks a major blow to McConnell, Bannon and other Republicans who involved themselves in race in a staunchly conservative state. When Jones is sworn in early next year, the Republican majority in the Senate will narrow to 51-49 over the Democrats.
Looking ahead to the midterm elections, McConnell said that he plans to continue his recent strategy of aggressively trying to help the most electable Republicans get nominated. He expressed confidence “the White House will be in the same place I am.”
The 2018 Senate map once looked ripe for GOP gains, with many more Democrats up for re-election than Republicans, including several in states Trump won. But key retirements and the possibility of bruising primaries has dimmed the party’s outlook.
McConnell addressed a range of topics in his Friday news conference, which came on the heels of Congress passing a sweeping tax bill and a stopgap spending measure to head off a government shutdown for at least a few more weeks.
When lawmakers return next year, McConnell will face a challenging slate of tasks, including coming to terms with Democrats on a long-term government funding agreement, which has proved elusive so far.
A more bipartisan legislative focus should be expected in 2018, he said, given the realities of an nearly evenly divided Senate. One item McConnell said that he is “almost certain” to act on is a bipartisan bill easing regulations on small and medium-size banks imposed under the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial oversight law. The bill, which passed the Senate Banking Committee this month, has 12 Democratic co-sponsors.
The Senate leader framed 2017 as successful one for Republican senators, pointing out the tax bill the GOP passed, the judicial nominees they shepherded to confirmation, including Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, and the rollback of some Obama-era regulations.
But McConnell struggled for much of the year to produce a major legislative accomplishment, toiling for months to try to pass a bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. His efforts fell short, leaving a core GOP campaign promise unfulfilled and frustrating Trump.
McConnell expressed little enthusiasm Friday for taking up further changes to the health care system or an overhaul of federal entitlement programs. He encouraged Republican advocates of repealing more provisions of the ACA to keep working to gather support for their proposals but stopped short of any firm commitment to pursue legislation: “My view of that is, as soon as we have the votes to achieve it, I’d like to do that.”
McConnell’s relationship with Trump, which has been unsteady throughout 2017, worsened in the wake of the Obamacare repeal failure. But this week, Trump took to Twitter to praise McConnell for a “fantastic job” on the tax bill.
McConnell, who has said he is not a fan of Trump’s tendency to pick fights on social media, quipped that he started “warming up” to Trump’s Twitter habits this week. He declined to talk about the state of their private conversations.
While he tempered expectations on health-care reform, McConnell sounded more optimistic about of the effort underway to find a compromise on a key immigration issue: delivering legal status to nearly a million immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children.
McConnell indicated earlier this week that if senators seeking a bipartisan compromise on the issue could agree on legislation, he would put it on the floor. But also indicated that did not necessarily see a need to address the issue before March, when an existing program protecting “dreamers” from deportation is set to expire. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and other Democrats are pushing to strike a deal in January.
Citing the story of his wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, McConnell said he supports maintaining legal immigration but said “there are improvements we could make” to the system.
“One thing I do think needs to be fixed is chain migration,” he said, using a term favored by conservatives to describe laws allowing legal immigrants to sponsor family members to come to the United States legally. That remark goes beyond the border security provisions that Democrats have been generally willing to entertain as part of a possible compromise.
McConnell added another caveat: Having Trump’s approval of any deal is crucial.
“We want to have a signature,” he said. “We don’t just want to spin our wheels here and have nothing to show for it.”
Asked about the ongoing Senate probe into alleged Russian tampering with the 2016 presidential election and possible connections with Trump’s campaign, McConnell expressed confidence in the Senate Intelligence Committee leaders conducting it.
“It’s not up to me to say when it’s over; it’s up to them to say when it’s over,” he said, referring to the panel’s chairman and vice chairman, Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Mark R. Warner, D-Va. “I hope those guys can stay together and tell us what happened and what we need do to prevent it from happening again.”
McConnell was also asked for an update on Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who missed Senate votes this week after he returned to Arizona as he receives treatment for an aggressive brain tumor. McConnell, who has served alongside him since McCain arrived in the Senate in 1987, called him “the finest person I have served with in my time here and a person for whom I have the greatest admiration.”
“We fully expect to have him back after the first of the year,” he said.