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McConnell becomes Trump’s first line of defense

McConnell becomes Trump’s first line of defense
© Greg Nash

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSchumer’s headaches to multiply in next Congress Momentum builds for Dems to take on campaign finance reform Will Trump be partisan brawler or smart dealmaker with Congress? MORE (R-Ky.) has a new role in Washington: He’s President TrumpDonald John TrumpMichael Cohen: I pray Michelle Obama's words will unite country again Michelle Obama: ‘I stopped even trying to smile’ during Trump’s inauguration Trump wants to end federal relief money for Puerto Rico: report MORE’s first line of defense against the new House Democratic majority.

McConnell is expected to battle regularly with House Democratic Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiDem leaders request formal update from DOJ on whether Whitaker should recuse himself House Dems preview plans to flex oversight muscles Top House Dems on investigative committees endorse Pelosi for Speaker MORE (Calif.), who is poised to become the next Speaker of the House if she can round up enough votes in her caucus. 

The longtime GOP leader, who will rule over a bigger GOP majority after a largely successful midterm battle, reached out to Pelosi on Wednesday and signaled a willingness to work with another veteran Washington dealmaker.

McConnell noted that the two once worked together as senior members of the Senate and House Appropriations Committees. 

“We’re not unfamiliar with each other and we’ll probably have a lot more dealings with each other in the future,” he told reporters, citing infrastructure as one possible area of compromise. 

Pelosi, for her part, called for bipartisanship at a rally Tuesday evening celebrating the Democratic takeover of the House and again at a press conference Wednesday. 

One of McConnell’s toughest immediate jobs will be to deliver funding for the border wall, one of Trump’s top priorities, in the face ofstiff Democratic opposition. 

McConnell said “we’re certainly going to try help the president achieve what he’d like to do with the wall and border security” but sounded cautious about pushing too hard against Democrats and risking a shutdown. 

He downplayed prospects of a deal in which Democrats would gain reauthorization of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects illegal immigrants who came to the country as children from deportation. 

The GOP leader warned House Democrats Wednesday that there would be political costs to pursuing Trump with investigations or legal efforts to obtain his tax records. 

“I remember when we tried it in the late ‘90s. We impeached President Clinton, his numbers went up and ours went down and we underperformed in the next election,” he said. “Democrats in the House will have to decide just how much presidential harassment is good strategy. I’m not so sure it will work for them.” 

McConnell, who helped pass Trump’s landmark tax reform package last year and came within a vote of repealing ObamaCare, will shift from playing offensive to defense now that Democrats control a chamber of Congress. 

McConnell and Trump were at odds last year during the fight over repealing ObamaCare, when the president grew frustrated at the Senate GOP’s inability to pass a bill. He at one point suggested McConnell could be replaced if he was unsuccessful with tax reform and other measures.

At other times, Trump chaffed at the Senate’s filibuster rule, questioning why Republicans wouldn’t just get rid of it. Trump’s complaints at times appeared to irritate McConnell.

But Trump heaped praise on McConnell after the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brettt Kavanaugh, and McConnell returned the favor on Wednesday in complimenting Trump’s role in the midterms.

Scott Jennings, a McConnell political advisor, said things will change for Trump and McConnell because the two will be fighting to win reelection in 2020.  

“The last two years has been offensive cooperation — they worked together to do things. Now it’ s going to be defensive cooperation to stop things,” he added. 

McConnell is likely to lead a GOP conference totaling 53 or 54 members, giving him more flexibility to pass legislation and confirm Trump’s judicial and executive branch nominees. That challenge will begin with confirming a new attorney general in the wake of Jeff Session’s resignation. 

McConnell voiced support for Sessions staying atop the Justice Department in the months before the election but on Wednesday gave Trump a green light to do what he wanted with Cabinet.  

"It's not up to me … to tell the president who to put in the cabinet. They serve at his pleasure,” he said Wednesday. “If he makes changes, we'll be dealing with whoever is sent up.”

McConnell, who will turn 77 years old in February, is now well positioned to serve as majority leader beyond 2020 as the Democratic path to regain control of the Senate has become more difficult as a result of Tuesday’s election. 

He rarely displays emotion but called Tuesday “a very good day” and joked that the host of one cable news program said “it’s probably a rare opportunity to see McConnell smile.” 

Democrats have promising targets in the next election cycle such as Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerCalifornia governor's office says focus is on wildfires, not Trump's 'inane and uninformed tweets' Republicans push back on Trump’s threat to withhold California funding amid wildfire Senate campaign chief: Scott 'right to be upset' with vote in Florida MORE (Colo.) and Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisParties start gaming out 2020 battleground McConnell becomes Trump’s first line of defense Lawmakers, forecasters: Election Day up for grabs MORE (N.C.) but will also have to defend Sen. Doug Jones’s (D) seat in Alabama, which is likely to flip.

McConnell told reporters Wednesday that he plans to run for re-election in 2020, when he will be a top target for Democrats. He could face another conservative primary challenger as he did in 2012, in which case Trump’s backing would be crucial. 

Asked if he expected the president’s endorsement, he said “I wouldn’t be surprised” to get it.

McConnell does not appear eager to plunge into a war of investigations with Pelosi and other House Democrats. 

“I’d like to focus on finishing up this session. We’ve got work left to do and we’ll see what happens next year,” he said. 

Asked what he would do if House Democrats try to expand probes into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election and possible collusion with Trump, McConnell said the Senate will stay the course in letting the Intelligence Committee take the lead. 

“We expect them to report at some point in the future,” he said. “So far they operate on a pretty bipartisan basis.”