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McConnell, GOP Senate brace for Roy Moore

McConnell, GOP Senate brace for Roy Moore
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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellLawmakers feel pressure on guns Bipartisan group of House lawmakers urge action on Export-Import Bank nominees Curbelo Dem rival lashes out over immigration failure MORE (R-Ky.) and his allies are coming to grips with the fact that the next GOP colleague in their club is likely to be a conservative firebrand who the No. 2 Senate Republican just last week said would not be a reliable member of the conference.

Roy Moore’s victory in Alabama’s GOP primary on Tuesday is trouble for McConnell, who will have a new disruptive force to deal with in the Senate — assuming Moore wins the general election in December.

Moore provided a blueprint for defeating Senate GOP incumbents that involved using McConnell as a punching bag — something the Senate GOP leader and his colleagues all noticed.

Moore’s trouncing of Sen. Luther StrangeLuther Johnson StrangeThe Trump Presidency: Year One Dems search for winning playbook Stephen Bannon steps down from Breitbart MORE (R-Ala.) had GOP senators scrambling on Wednesday to mend fences, given their opposition to his candidacy. A group linked to McConnell spent more than $10 million to defeat the conservative. Moore pledged in a fundraising email to “end Mitch McConnell’s reign as majority leader.”

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Senate Republican Whip John CornynJohn CornynLawmakers feel pressure on guns Kasich’s campaign website tones down gun language after Florida shooting Murphy: Trump’s support for background check bill shows gun politics ‘shifting rapidly’ MORE (Texas) spoke to the primary winner by phone Wednesday morning to express his support in the Dec. 12 general election.

A week after he said Moore’s track record suggested he would not be a reliable member of the conference, Cornyn downplayed fears that Moore would be a disruptive force.

“We’ve got a whole spectrum of personalities and characters in our conference, so I look forward to his constructive engagement to try to get things done,” he told reporters.

It was a markedly different message from the one sent by Cornyn last week.

Asked then if he thought Moore would be reliable and productive on important issues such as tax reform, Cornyn said simply, “I do not.”

Pointing to the candidate’s controversial judicial record, Cornyn noted, “Getting thrown off the Supreme Court of your state twice, I don’t think, is a credential that commends you for membership in the United States Senate.”

Moore was removed from the Alabama Supreme Court in 2003 after placing a granite monument of the Ten Commandments in the courthouse and again in 2016 after ordering state judges to ignore a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage.

McConnell released a statement Tuesday that congratulated Moore on his victory and emphasized that the GOP leader shares his “frustration” over the lack of progress in enacting President Trump’s agenda.

“We look forward to Judge Moore’s help enacting that agenda when he arrives,” McConnell added.

McConnell also spoke to Moore on the phone, according to a spokesman, who did not provide details of the conversation. 

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Health Care: Trump eases rules on insurance outside ObamaCare | HHS office on religious rights gets 300 complaints in a month | GOP chair eyes opioid bill vote by Memorial Day HHS official put on leave amid probe into social media posts Trump, Pence to address CPAC this week MORE (R-Texas), a conservative firebrand himself, sounded the most upbeat of Senate Republicans about Moore’s victory.

“Congratulations to @mooresenate for a hard-fought victory in tonight’s runoff. It was a testament to the power of conservative grassroots,” Cruz posted on Twitter.

Senate GOP sources say the leadership will try to mitigate the threat Moore poses to its hierarchy and agenda by reaching out to him on legislative and political priorities. Leaders will send a clear message that the best strategy for him to accomplish his goals is to work with fellow Republicans harmoniously.

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainLawmakers worry about rise of fake video technology Democrats put Dreamers and their party in danger by playing hardball Trump set a good defense budget, but here is how to make it better MORE (R-Ariz.), who backed the leadership during its standoff with Cruz in 2013, when Cruz worked closely with House conservatives to oppose the implementation of ObamaCare and caused a government shutdown, said “inclusiveness” is key to dealing with rebels.

“You bring them into the issues and you say, ‘Hey, we need your help on this,’ ” McCain said. “Senators realize after a while that if we’re going to get things done, we have to govern collectively.”

Some Senate GOP aides argued that Cruz could be a model for Moore.

They said McConnell was able to bring Cruz into the fold after years of acrimony, which came to a peak of intensity when Cruz accused McConnell on the Senate floor of lying about an alleged deal with Democrats to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank.

Cruz has kept a lower profile this year and worked cooperatively with Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderOvernight Health Care: Trump health chief backs CDC research on gun violence | GOP negotiators meet on ObamaCare market fix | Groups sue over cuts to teen pregnancy program GOP negotiators meet on ObamaCare market fix 30 million people will experience eating disorders — the CDC needs to help MORE (R-Tenn.) and GOP leaders on a health-care bill that eventually failed over the summer.

“You never know what happens after you come to the swamp. Ted Cruz? He’s now a swamp creature,” joked one Senate GOP aide.

Yet there are real reasons to think such arguments amount to wishful thinking.

Cruz’s evolution this year came after he refused to endorse Trump at last year’s GOP convention, which hurt the Texan with the president’s supporters. Cruz is now up for reelection in 2018. While he is the favorite, Democrats are hopeful of running a competitive race.

McCain said it’s too soon to tell how Moore will fit in with GOP leaders and colleagues, echoing sentiments expressed by other Republican senators.

“You never know until people are here,” he said.

The most immediate concern for Republicans running for reelection next year is that primary opponents will copy Moore’s playbook and use McConnell against them.

A Harvard-Harris poll provided to The Hill in August showed that McConnell had the lowest favorability rating of any elected official with a national profile. He earned a 19 percent favorable rating, lower than Trump or Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanRepublicans are avoiding gun talks as election looms The Hill's 12:30 Report Flake to try to force vote on DACA stopgap plan MORE (R-Wis.).

“I think we’re all going to spend a little bit of time looking at the race in Alabama,” said Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiThe siren of Baton Rouge Interior plan to use drilling funds for new projects met with skepticism The 14 GOP senators who voted against Trump’s immigration framework MORE (R-Alaska), who was critical of the closed and sometimes rushed process of negotiating health care earlier this year.

She said she hoped that McConnell would not become a rallying cry for Tea Party challengers next year.

“I hope it’s just a one-off,” she said.

Cornyn firmly rejected the idea that Moore’s election would shake up the Senate power structure.

“Sen. McConnell’s standing as the leader in the Republican conference, I think, is very solid, so I don’t see that as a problem,” he said.

Cornyn also questioned whether Moore’s success necessarily bodes trouble for other GOP incumbents.

He said Strange hasn’t served in the Senate as long as other incumbents and didn’t have the same name recognition or popularity as other senators facing voters in 2018.