GOP power shift emerges with Trump, McConnell
A subtle power shift is emerging on Capitol Hill as Republicans face a possible future that might no longer include President Trump.
The shift has been most apparent in the dynamics surrounding negotiations on a new coronavirus relief package.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has sought to avoid a vote on a massive stimulus package that would badly divide the Senate GOP conference right before Election Day, even as Trump urges Republican senators to “go big.”
McConnell told Republican colleagues at a lunch meeting Tuesday that he warned the White House against a vote on a massive stimulus package before election day. He quipped that he knew his message that was delivered in a private meeting would get out to the public very quickly.
“He made his statement prefaced by ‘this will probably be on Twitter in a few minutes,’” said a GOP senator recounting Tuesday’s meeting.
A majority of Republican senators oppose a bigger coronavirus relief package, even as Trump pushes for one.
“Mitch understands his troops,” the senator said. “He’s made the calculation that it’s not helpful to bring it to the floor because it would show we’re not on the same page as the president. There would be a lot of Republican no’s.”
It’s just one of the emerging differences between the two pillars of GOP power in Washington.
Republican lawmakers also have concerns about the management of Trump’s reelection campaign, ranging from his performance during the first debate, to its cash shortage, to the president’s tendency to highlight politically divisive topics instead of focus on the issues.
Trump’s campaign has had increasing trouble raising money as donors have started to shift their resources to saving the Senate GOP majority and building a firewall against the possibility of a Democratic-controlled White House and House. Trump’s grass-roots fundraising arm is working harder and spending more on every dollar it raises compared to earlier this year.
There’s no real question of McConnell’s loyalty to Trump.
He has publicly predicted that Trump will win reelection and has pulled out all the stops to confirm Trump’s nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, to the Supreme Court before the Nov. 3 election, something the president wanted.
McConnell also told reporters Tuesday that he would likely put a Trump-backed coronavirus-relief deal on the Senate floor, even though it is likely to draw significant opposition from members of his conference.
At the same time, GOP senators say the dynamics also illustrate a reality that many of them aren’t sure Trump, who is trailing Democratic nominee Joe Biden in polls two weeks before Election Day, will be around after Jan. 20.
“There is this growing sense that if it’s more likely that Republicans retain the majority and the president is not reelected, then obviously McConnell becomes the most powerful Republican in Washington,” said a second Republican senator.
McConnell is also up for reelection this year and has been a top Democratic target, but GOP senators feel confident he’ll win reelection. A new Mason-Dixon poll published Wednesday showed McConnell leading his Democratic challenger, Amy McGrath, by 9 points.
Trump’s position is much more precarious as polls show him trailing in a slew of key battleground states including Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
McConnell has repeatedly downplayed expectations of a COVID-19 relief deal with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), asserting that he does not believe she is negotiating in good faith, and warned that a $1.8 trillion or bigger package would be too expensive.
“I don’t think so. That’s where the administration is willing to go. My members think half a trillion dollars, highly targeted, is the best way to go,” he told reporters in Kentucky last week.
At the same time, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows on Wednesday waved away the suggestion that McConnell has put a brake on the negotiations with Pelosi.
“The leader’s been very helpful. Obviously, we continue to stay engaged with the leader on a regular basis. And so I don’t know that there’s any blame to be put on Leader McConnell or the administration in terms of our discussions together,” he told reporters.
Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) said McConnell’s position on the deal “is dictated by the math.”
“He knows where the votes are. As much as we all want to get a deal, a deal that would pass in the Senate with all Democratic votes and a handful of Republicans is not an outcome the leader would like to make happen. He’d like to see a deal where you get a majority of Republicans in support of policies that we actually think are good in terms of addressing the virus,” he said.
Thune has said on several occasions recently that he doesn’t think there are even 13 Republican votes to pass a package along the lines of what Mnuchin and Pelosi are currently discussing.
Democrats control 47 seats in the Senate and would need at least 13 Republicans to pass a package packed full of their priorities, such as Affordable Care Act premium subsidies, which are under discussion.
Republican senators warned Meadows during a lunch meeting Wednesday not to chase a deal with the Democrats if Pelosi continues to ratchet up the price tag of the package.
“I think there’s a general feeling that bidding up and up is not going to be well-received,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said after the lunch.
McConnell has publicly checked Trump in other ways.
The GOP leader admonished the president a few weeks ago for not condemning white supremacist groups such as the Proud Boys after Trump’s first debate with Biden.
He also was quick to put out a statement late last month pledging “an orderly transition of power” after Trump refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he lost the presidential election.
With control of the White House and Senate at risk, some Senate Republicans are putting their own political livelihoods ahead of Trump’s, making a case that donors should prioritize building a firewall in the Senate.
The second Republican senator said it’s “the sense among my colleagues” that Republicans have a better chance of keeping control of the Senate because “that’s something we can somewhat control,” while they have little control over how Trump runs his campaign.
“Maybe Republicans are kind of promoting that possibility because then our money becomes more of a priority,” the senator added, referring to the importance of a Senate GOP firewall if Biden wins the presidency.
Some Republican donors also see a Senate GOP majority as a better bet than a Trump second term.
Dan Eberhart, a major Republican donor, told NBC News last month that “big donors are increasingly focused on the Senate.”
Updated at 8:31 a.m.
The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.