Mitch McConnell has sidestepped the Russia controversy that’s dogged Donald Trump all year and eluded the wrath rained down on Paul Ryan over the GOP’s Obamacare repeal effort.
But the health care reform battle is now squarely in McConnell’s court: He will decide the contents of the Senate’s plan, most likely behind closed doors. And he is on the hook for getting something through a sharply divided Senate Republican Conference in the midst of an increasingly imperiled presidency.
McConnell’s role will come into sharp relief this week, with Trump out of the country and the Russia spotlight shifting somewhat away from Congress after the naming of a special prosecutor. The Congressional Budget Office on Wednesday will deliver a highly anticipated report on the House health care bill that is expected to show it would cause huge coverage losses. That will provide a new round of ammunition to Obamacare supporters, even as it allows the Senate to truly start writing its own plan.
So far, McConnell has led a series of closed-door meetings with senators, where they’ve mainly aired their grievances with the House bill without making substantive progress, according to attendees. In the coming days, McConnell will have to move to break the impasse.
“He’ll have to make some decisions. I’m sure it will be with the recommendation and input from our members, but there will come a point in which we’ve talked some of this stuff to death,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), a close McConnell lieutenant. “He’s made it very clear, at the end of this we’re going to have to vote.”
McConnell (R-Ky.) is handling the situation so far in his typically cautious manner, feeling out his conference but offering no positions of his own. A 13-person working group he appointed has swelled at times to more than 20 Republicans so that each member can feel his or her voice is getting heard and is a part of the process; McConnell also has made health care the topic of each of his conference’s thrice-weekly lunches.
The GOP leader is treating the frequent gatherings on health care like a focus group that will inform what he and Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Orrin Hatch of Utah and Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi of Wyoming will write when they put pen to paper.
“Mitch right now is listening very carefully. He’s being very careful not to weigh in, thinking that this needs to come from the membership,” said a GOP senator. “He’s not trying to force a particular point of view.”
McConnell’s strategy is to keep the debate within his conference for…