McConnell, Scott face off over GOP’s agenda
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his top allies are publicly distancing themselves from Sen. Rick Scott’s (R-Fla.) decision to release a memo laying out his vision for the party’s agenda.
The rare public feud among Senate GOP leadership underscores the difference in approach between the two men, one responsible for the caucus’s agenda and the other for its campaign strategy.
The schism spilled out into the public on Tuesday, when McConnell, known for being tight-lipped and strategic about his comments, took aim at Scott during a weekly leadership press conference.
“We will not have as part of our agenda a bill that raises taxes on half the American people and sunsets Social Security and Medicare within five years. That will not be part of the Republican Senate majority agenda,” McConnell said, in response to a question about the plan that Scott dropped last week.
McConnell told reporters that Scott would be available to answer questions about his plan. But Scott, who attends the press conference in his role as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), had left just seconds before, after he spoke and just as McConnell was getting the question about him.
The public lashing is notable for McConnell, who is generally loath to step into GOP drama.
But the split came after Scott’s plan dominated a closed-door GOP leadership meeting on Monday night, sources confirmed to The Hill, with top GOP senators privately warning Scott that the plan opened the party up to Democratic attacks.
McConnell didn’t point to specific parts of Scott’s plan but appeared to be making veiled jabs at two pieces of it that have sparked criticism from both Democrats and some GOP Senate campaigns.
One section of Scott’s 11-point plan says that “All Americans should pay some income tax to have skin in the game, even if a small amount.” Another part says that, “All federal legislation sunsets in 5 years. If a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again.”
Beyond the policy specifics, Scott’s decision to release an agenda raised eyebrows because McConnell has made it clear he doesn’t believe the caucus should get into what its plans would be in 2023 ahead of the November election, which he wants to be a referendum on Democratic control of Washington.
“I guess everybody can do whatever they want to do in the Senate but … I was surprised that he came out with that detailed of a plan,” Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), the No. 4 GOP senator and a McConnell ally, told The Hill.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), McConnell’s No. 2, stressed that Scott’s plan represented the Florida senator — and only him.
“He indicated that it was his plan — nothing more, nothing less — so, like I said, I think that’s kind of how most of our members are handling it. And if there are things on there that they like they can pick them off, and if there are things they don’t like, they can do something else,” Thune said.
Even as Scott released his own agenda, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), McConnell’s No. 3, has been discussing strategy about broad themes that unite Republicans with conference members.
Aides and GOP senators stopped short of calling what Barrasso is working on a formal agenda, and noted that the talks pre-date Scott’s decision to release his plan. Instead, they characterized it as more of a communications strategy about organizing principles that unite Republicans — like fighting inflation, lowering energy costs and bolstering the military — in line with the weekly internal messaging Barrasso does as conference chair.
Scott has stressed that his plan is meant to represent only his own ideas, not the NRSC.
“I agree with Senator McConnell that this election will primarily be about Joe Biden and the Democrats’ failures, but have been clear that I also believe Republicans should talk about a plan for turning this country around,” Scott said in a statement.
“I’m a business guy and I’ve always believed in making plans in order to get things done. Republicans, and really all Americans outside of Washington, are demanding it. I will continue talking about my plan to rescue America from these radical Democrats,” he added.
But GOP senators warned that Scott’s position leading the NRSC created confusion around the plan.
“He’s definitely wearing two hats … and that’s the reason for the confusion,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a McConnell ally, told The Hill. “[Democrats] are already going after some of the things he’s proposed. But I think the best thing we can do is just point out it’s his plan, not anybody else’s.”
Though Scott runs the NRSC, a position elected by the Senate GOP conference, he and McConnell aren’t viewed as close.
They’ve also deployed different strategies toward the biggest influence in their party: former President Trump.
McConnell rarely mentions the former president — asked on Tuesday about Trump’s comments praising Russia, McConnell focused instead on Russian President Vladimir Putin. McConnell offered scathing criticism of Trump in the immediate wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, where a mob of the former president’s supporters breached the building, describing him as “practically and morally responsible,” and he urged his caucus to reject the effort pushed by Trump to challenge the results of the 2020 election on Jan. 6.
Scott, on the other hand, backed an election challenge. He’s also found himself in the middle of the McConnell-Trump divide, declaring last year that a GOP civil war was “canceled.” And he’s made a point of remaining in Trump’s favor, including meeting with him, over the past year.
Politico Playbook reported last month that Trump had urged Scott to run for Senate GOP leader, part of a months-long effort by the former president to oust McConnell. Scott has said he isn’t interested in being Senate GOP leader and that he has a good working relationship with McConnell.
McConnell appeared to take a veiled swipe at Trump’s effort, vowing that if Republicans win back the majority in November, he will be the majority leader starting in 2023 and will decide what the agenda is. McConnell was reelected in 2020.
“I will be the majority leader,” McConnell said about a potential GOP majority. “I’ll decide in consultation with my members what to put on the floor.”
Even as Scott has said he isn’t interested in McConnell’s spot, he’s long been viewed as having larger political ambitions, including a potential White House bid.
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) defended Scott for releasing the plan, arguing that one risk for Republicans is not having an alternative to President Biden. He also shrugged off speculation that Scott could be trying to position himself for a future race by releasing the agenda and TV ads to help bolster it.
“There’s no interest in the world like self-interest to motivate someone,” said Cramer. “If it weren’t for self-interest none of us would run for anything.”