Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned President Donald Trump this week that former White House strategist Steve Bannon is on track to derail the president’s political agenda. But with little to show for himself in terms of facilitating legislative wins for the president, it looks like McConnell may just be desperately trying to save his political skin.
According to The Washington Examiner, McConnell warned the president that Bannon’s 2018 midterm insurgency will threaten congressional action on tax reform, infrastructure and improving the economy.
His argument hinges on the idea that incumbents ready to go along with Trump’s agenda will be too busy fending off primary challengers to focus on legislation.
And there’s at least some evidence to back the idea that Bannon has Trump friendly lawmakers on his primary hit list.
As The Examiner notes:
…Bannon’s top targets include Republican Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming; Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Roger Wicker of Mississippi. Barrasso and Wicker vote with Trump 96 percent of the time. Fischer sides with the president 92 percent of the time, according to tracking from FiveThirtyEight.
None of three is known for speaking out against Trump in public.
Even occasional Trump critics like Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., who Bannon also is targeting, vote with the president 92 percent and 90 percent of the time, respectively. All five voted for failed legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare, although Heller was initially opposed.
Where McConnell loses credibility however, is the party establishment’s massive mishandling of attempts to repeal Obamacare earlier this year.
Under McConnell’s leadership, in fact, repeal was so badly bungled that Trump has within the last week taken on the task of undermining the healthcare law in any way he can via executive order.
Trump began late the process Thursday with a declaration that taxpayers will no longer be in the business of bailing out insurance companies via cost sharing reduction payments, which amount to about $7 billion in annual spending to pad insurers’ bottom lines.
It’s only Tuesday, and Republicans in the Senate are already working against the president in an effort to make sure that the subsidies remain in place. Democrat Patty Murray and Republican Lamar Alexander are currently ironing out a scheme that would provide congressional approval of the unconstitutional subsidy payments for two years, essentially bailing out Obamacare and reversing Trump’s reversal. And, at least in the Senate, the Murray/Alexander effort is pretty likely to muster enough support for passage. Passage in the upper legislative chamber would make Senate Republicans who promised to repeal Obamacare complicit in cementing the failed healthcare law into place for at least another two years and perhaps indefinitely.
Of course, the chances of such legislation making it through the House is far less likely. Part of the reason is that the House is by design less given to establishment control in Washington, giving truly conservative voices more power. And if you’ve been paying attention in recent years, you know that conservative stalwarts in the House Freedom Caucus and Republican Study Committee have done a pretty good job of pushing back against the establishment.
Whether Bannon goes after GOP senators generally supportive of Trump’s agenda in the midterms doesn’t really matter all that much. It would, after all, defy logic to believe he intends to support challengers who would enter Washington with the goal of derailing the Trump agenda he had a hand in helping to construct.
The only real threat of new GOP senators replacing the same party’s incumbents is that it’s the incumbents keeping McConnell in power. The GOP establishment is busy arguing that incumbent challenges in the primaries will open the door for Democrats to be more competitive in general elections. And McConnell and his ilk are attempting to manufacture early evidence for that claim by largely abandoning GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore, who handily defeated establishment backed Sen. Luther Strange in a primary special election last month, as his election battle with Democrat challenger Doug Jones heats up. Sacrificing Moore doesn’t threaten McConnell’s leadership as much as allowing him to set an example for future truly conservative challengers.
What it really boils down to for voters is whether they want to follow McConnell’s safety strategy or risk losing seats to Democrats. The former pretty much guarantees that the GOP majority will hold. But if recent history is any indicator, under McConnell’s leadership that’s about all it will do for the remainder of Trump’s tenure. The latter is a little riskier. If the Bannon-backed challengers are weak candidates, Democrats could score big time.