McConnell navigates Senate with eye on vulnerable allies

Two of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellTrump slams Obama for ‘shameful’ 9/11 bill veto GOP chairman lobbies against overriding Obama on 9/11 bill Black Caucus demands Flint funding from GOP MORE’s closest allies, Sens. Rob PortmanRob PortmanSenate rivals gear up for debates Funding bill includes million for opioid crisis Senate panel approves pension rescue for coal miners MORE (Ohio) and Kelly AyotteKelly AyotteSenate rivals gear up for debates WATCH LIVE: Warren campaigns for Clinton in NH Green group endorses in key Senate races MORE (N.H.), are in serious danger of losing their seats, putting pressure on McConnell to get a deal in year-end budget talks.

GOP strategists say McConnell’s strategy for protecting vulnerable incumbents is to show that the Republican Congress knows how to govern, especially in battleground states such as Ohio and New Hampshire, where swing voters will decide the outcome.

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Getting a budget deal that would keep the government open for the next year is key for McConnell and his caucus, which is defending 24 seats next year, including several in states President Obama won in 2012.

McConnell also wants to win new defense spending to give something extra for Ayotte to brag about back home, where she learned on Monday she would face a serious Democratic challenger in Gov.
Maggie Hassan.

The entrance of the popular governor instantly makes New Hampshire a prime opportunity for Democrats to pick up a Senate seat in 2016. The state has gone Democratic in five of the last six presidential cycles, though it has often been close.

In Ohio, Portman, one of 12 Republican senators who voted to raise ceilings on defense and non-defense spending as part of a two-year budget deal in 2013, has been running behind former Gov. Ted Strickland (D) in polls. He announced Monday that he has $11 million in cash on hand, a financial boon given the close race expected in his state.

McConnell cares about all his vulnerable colleagues, but the fates of Portman and Ayotte, trusted advisers, are top priorities.  

 McConnell invites Portman to sit in on leadership meetings and he named Ayotte to serve as his “counsel” in January of 2013. She stepped down from that post at the end of the last Congress but since has become a foil to Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzPence offers Cruz 'heartfelt thanks' for Trump endorsement Cruz: Trump hasn't apologized for personal insults Cruz says he forgives Trump for attacks on family MORE (R-Texas), McConnell’s harshest critic in the Senate. Ayotte has been an outspoken advocate for ending the defense sequester and raising spending for the Pentagon, which could mean more funding for the Portsmouth, N.H., Naval Shipyard and big state employer BAE Systems.

“To the extent that Mitch McConnell and the Republican House can show that they’re trying to move legislation that involves governing versus shouting, it will be well received by the electorate,” said former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who was one of McConnell’s confidants when they served together and is a columnist for The Hill.

“Any agreement that shows that they’re there to govern and to be constructive is going to be positive for almost anyone running for re-election as a Republican, which is probably one of the reasons the president has been so
tentative about doing [a deal],” he added. 

Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, said a budget deal that raises the cap on defense spending will
help Ayotte.

“Defense and foreign policy to the extent they are significant issues over the next year, that would help Ayotte,” he said. “It’ll be a plus in her column.”

McConnell faces a number of serious challenges in getting a budget deal. He must hold negotiations against the backdrop of a tumultuous House GOP leadership race, which gives conservatives reason to mock his strategy. 

Rep. Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzFBI releases interviews with Clinton aides The Hill's 12:30 Report Top Clinton aide granted immunity deal in FBI probe MORE (R-Utah), who announced a late bid for the Speakership on Sunday, said Monday that McConnell is “flat-out wrong” for promising there will not be a government shutdown on his watch.

Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerRepublican Study Committee elders back Harris for chairman Dems to GOP: Help us fix ObamaCare The disorderly order of presidential succession MORE (R-Ohio), who is stepping down Oct. 30, announced Monday that the House will vote to elect his successor on Oct. 29. That gives McConnell and BoehnerJohn BoehnerRepublican Study Committee elders back Harris for chairman Dems to GOP: Help us fix ObamaCare The disorderly order of presidential succession MORE less than four weeks to carve out a deal with Democrats and the White House on the current Speaker’s watch.

Republicans in the Senate, for the most part, are buying into McConnell’s strategy.

Sen. Mark KirkMark KirkSenate rivals gear up for debates The Trail 2016: Trump seizes on Charlotte violence Iran president hints at future prisoner swaps, cash settlements with US MORE (Ill.), one of the chamber’s most endangered Republicans, told The Hill he would like to see a final deal on a long-term transportation bill — and one that is paid for by repatriated corporate profits.

Sen. Ron JohnsonRon JohnsonSenate rivals gear up for debates The Trail 2016: Trump seizes on Charlotte violence The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (Wis.), another embattled GOP incumbent, said he would be open to passing overseas corporate tax reform, even though McConnell has indicated that all tax reform should be done in a comprehensive package under a new president in 2017.

“I’m always looking for
continuous improvement, so I’ll take whatever continuous improvement we can make,” he said. “We’ve got a problem with an uncompetitive tax system that is trapping earnings overseas. If we can in some way, shape or form get that back ... I would certainly take a look at it.

“I’m pretty much open to what can we do to make incremental improvements between now and hopefully getting a serious president,” he added.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who is also vulnerable, said he would like to see a multi-year transportation bill passed this year but cautioned that it should be paid for.

Complicating the task for GOP leaders, he said Congress should enact overseas corporate tax reform only if companies can repatriate foreign profits voluntarily. Democrats want to mandate it.

Lawmakers say the best opportunity to pass a long-term transportation bill is to tack it on to a year-end budget deal, something that McConnell wants to avoid. But he may change his mind if he decides it will help endangered
colleagues prove themselves as legislators.

“Finding a year-end deal that will not only protect but help vulnerable Senate Republicans in next year’s election is of absolute paramount importance to McConnell,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist and former Senate leadership aide.