McConnell wary of divisive 2016 fights

McConnell wary of divisive 2016 fights
© Cameron Lancaster

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellRepublicans play clean up on Trump's foreign policy Americans brimming with optimism on the economy McCain hopes Americans can be confident GOP-controlled Congress can investigate president MORE (R-Ky.), seeking to protect his majority in a tough cycle for Republicans, is leaning toward holding back several measures that have bipartisan support but are divisive in his conference.

McConnell, who will meet in the Oval Office on Tuesday with President Obama and Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanTrump’s feud with the press in the spotlight Republicans play clean up on Trump's foreign policy Graham: Ryan tax plan won’t get 10 votes in the Senate MORE (R-Wis.), is under pressure from some in his conference to take action this year on a sweeping Pacific Rim trade deal, criminal justice reform legislation and an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

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Others in McConnell’s conference are not keen to tackle any of those issues, however, and Senate GOP sources say McConnell is likely to take the safe route and not advance any bills that divide his ­conference.

“McConnell is smart to wait on issues that divide us until such time as we can achieve a consensus,” said a senior Republican aide. “There’s no question that some members want to turn to some things sooner than others. But McConnell’s duty is to do what’s best for the entire conference. Seems what’s best for the conference is to focus on the things that unite us.”

McConnell’s toughest conundrum may be over what to do about a budget.

He often bashed Democrats for not passing a budget, which is required by law, when they controlled the upper chamber.

Drafting a document that will win 51 GOP votes — a task made more difficult by projections of rising deficit numbers over the next decade — is hard enough. But passing it would require a marathon voting session that would force vulnerable incumbents to vote on politically dangerous ­amendments.

Endangered Republicans such as Sens. Ron JohnsonRon JohnsonDems ask for hearings on Russian attempts to attack election infrastructure GOP senators unveil bill to give Congress control of consumer bureau budget GOP gets bolder in breaking with Trump MORE (Wis.) and Rob PortmanRob PortmanRyan tries to save tax plan Rift in GOP threatens ObamaCare repeal Overnight Tech: GOP split on net neutrality strategy | Trump's phone worries Dems | Bill in the works on self-driving cars MORE (Ohio) say passing a budget is not necessary since congressional leaders struck a deal last year setting the top-line spending level for the fiscal 2017 appropriations bills.

McConnell vowed earlier this year that he would make a concerted effort to pass a budget but left himself some wiggle room by stopping short of guaranteeing it.

McConnell is sticking to the safe plan of concentrating on the 12 annual appropriations bills. If he can move them individually and avoid a year-end omnibus spending package, he’ll declare the year a legislative success.

“McConnell has always focused on having the Senate be productive and for it not to get bogged down into a never ending gripe-fest between senators,” said Josh Holmes, a GOP strategist and former senior aide to McConnell.

“One of the things he encouraged going into the majority and still encourages is for people to work through their differences in committee and not have extremely divisive issues amongst Republicans come to the Senate floor unless they are must-pass reauthorizations and spending bills, in which case you don’t have any choice,” he added. 

Republicans are also divided over whether to enact filibuster reform and whether to cut a deal on overseas corporate tax reform.

Business groups have ramped up pressure on Congress to vote on the Trans-Pacific Partnership before the summer, something that Ryan and other Republicans support. Ryan said in December he wants the House to “move as soon as we can.”

But Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin HatchOrrin HatchPublic lands dispute costs Utah a major trade show Overnight Tech: GOP chairman to propose high-skilled visa overhaul | Zuckerberg's 5,700 word letter | Tech lobbies gear up ahead of internet fight Overnight Cybersecurity: Trump vows to punish leakers | Cyber steers clear of tech versus Trump fight MORE (R-Utah) has serious concerns with the trade deal because it would limit the exclusive rights of pharmaceutical companies to clinical trial data.

North Carolina Sens. Richard BurrRichard BurrReport: Senate Intel Committee asks agencies to keep records related to Russian probe Comey meets Intel senators amid uproar over Trump-Russia ties Senate Intel head in the dark about Trump intelligence review MORE (R) and Thom Tillis (R) have balked at language that would allow member countries to regulate manufactured tobacco products. The tobacco industry supports 22,000 jobs in their home state.

Criminal justice reform also divides the conference. Senate Republican Whip John CornynJohn CornynRepublicans play clean up on Trump's foreign policy Comey meets Intel senators amid uproar over Trump-Russia ties Corker: Senate GOP discussing best path for Russia probe MORE (Texas) is pushing an overhaul bill that would narrow the scope of mandatory minimum sentencing laws and give judges more discretion to impose penalties. It has the support of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyFlynn told FBI he didn't talk sanctions with Russian envoy: report Gorsuch hearing date set for March 20 Judiciary Committee wants briefing, documents on Flynn resignation MORE (R-Iowa) and Republican Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamTrump’s feud with the press in the spotlight Senators eye new sanctions against Iran Republicans play clean up on Trump's foreign policy MORE (S.C.) and Mike LeeMike LeeTop antitrust senators call for Sessions to scrutinize AT&T-Time Warner merger Public lands dispute costs Utah a major trade show GOP senators unveil bill to give Congress control of consumer bureau budget MORE (Utah).

But conservatives led by Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzTrump to interview four candidates for national security adviser Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at CPAC Reports: Petraeus off the list, Trump down to three candidates to replace Flynn MORE (R-Texas), who is at the front of the pack in the GOP presidential primary, and Sen. Tom CottonTom CottonKoch-backed group stepping up advocacy against border tax GOP senator: 'Serious concerns' about House border tax plan GOP senators to Trump: We support 'maintaining and expanding' Gitmo MORE (R-Ark.) warn it would put thousands of dangerous felons on the streets.

On the ISIS war authorization, GOP Sens. Jeff FlakeJeff FlakeOvernight Tech: GOP chairman to propose high-skilled visa overhaul | Zuckerberg's 5,700 word letter | Tech lobbies gear up ahead of internet fight Senate Dem blasts GOP for trying to repeal broadband privacy rules Planned Parenthood targets GOP lawmakers amid ObamaCare protests MORE (Ariz.), Graham and Rand PaulRand PaulTrump’s feud with the press in the spotlight Rand Paul: We’re very lucky John McCain’s not in charge Rand Paul: John Bolton would be a 'bad choice' for national security adviser MORE (Ky.), who is running for president, want Congress to take action. Other Republicans fear doing so would tie the next president’s hands to order military action.

While McConnell last month put Graham’s proposed AUMF on the fast-track for the Senate calendar, it is not expected to move anytime soon.

Portman, who faces a tough reelection in November, wants to tackle overseas corporate tax reform this year. He and Sen. Charles SchumerCharles SchumerOvernight Cybersecurity: Trump defends Flynn, blasts leaks | Yahoo fears further breach Overnight Finance: Trump's Labor pick withdraws | Ryan tries to save tax plan | Trump pushes tax reform with retailers Democrats declare victory after Puzder bows out MORE (D-N.Y.) unveiled a bipartisan agreement on a detailed set of principles last year, but other Republicans want to postpone the debate until 2017.

McConnell is putting it on the back burner for now. He doesn’t want to sign off on any deal that spends revenue from taxing overseas corporate profits on infrastructure or other programs.