Ever the skilled tactician, McConnell has managed to deflect most of Trump’s populist promises in favor of a conventional menu of conservative priorities.
He’s done so by working with House Speaker Paul Ryan and Vice President Mike Pence, who installed his own longtime aide, Marc Short, as White House legislative affairs director. Pence is often seen strategizing with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Trump’s pledge to build a wall on the Mexico border, tear up unfair trade agreements, and pass a huge infrastructure-spending bill have largely gone unheeded in Congress.
Instead, under McConnell’s leadership, Republicans have rolled back numerous Obama-era regulations and passed the biggest changes to the corporate tax code in more than 30 years. He’s spent the year ushering through young, conservative judges who will shape the federal bench for a generation, confirming a record-breaking 21 circuit court judges — and 20 district court judges.
Short told NBC News there is no doubt Trump’s record is distinguished by “a lot of conservative victories.” Still, he said, “I don’t think it’s fair to say there’s a Pence, McConnell, Ryan triumvirate that is guiding his agenda away from things he wants to do.”
McConnell’s most significant accomplishment in the eyes of many conservatives is how he paved the way for President Trump’s early Supreme Court nominee.
“Two words: Neil Gorsuch,” Louisiana Republican Sen. John Kennedy told NBC News.
After Scalia’s death, McConnell refused to allow the Senate to consider Merrick Garland, who had been President Obama’s nominee to take the position. With a presidential election just months away, McConnell argued, the job of choosing the justice should fall to the next president, not Obama.
The gamble paid off. After Trump was elected, he promptly tapped the conservative Gorsuch for the seat. McConnell then took the unprecedented step of suspending the Senate’s 60-vote requirement to secure Gorsuch’s confirmation.
Many Democrats remain enraged by McConnell’s tactics around the court vacancy, saying that he essentially stole the seat. Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin told NBC News it will be remembered a “stain on the history of the Senate.”
Law, the former McConnell chief of staff, maintains that “the way in which it happened defines McConnell’s unique skill.”
More recently, McConnell announced he would cancel the Senate’s August recess, chastising Democrats for “blocking” Trump nominees and vowing to pass a series of appropriations bills. It also had the desired effect of keeping several vulnerable Democrats off the campaign trail at a time when the map already favors the GOP.
The “McConnell Lockdown”
But with McConnell’s success comes his weakness.
Senators of both parties grumble about what they call the “McConnell lockdown:” He keeps such a tight grip on power that few dare to challenge him. The Senate floor sees little debate and few votes on legislation.
Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, a member of Senate leadership, defended McConnell’s approach this way: “My view is that Senator McConnell appreciates and understands the Senate better than any current member of the Senate and he uses those skills every day.”
Frustration with McConnell has been bubbling nonetheless, senators and aides in his own party say in private conversations. When asked to comment about how they feel about McConnell’s leadership for this story, several Republican senators declined to comment.
One reason there have been so little floor activity, defenders say, is that McConnell wants to protect vulnerable incumbents seeking reelection from taking tough votes that might prompt blowback.
House Republicans complain that they have passed 500 bills only to see them sit languishing in the Senate. Bipartisan legislation crafted in the Senate often goes nowhere, including criminal justice reform, an updated Authorization for the Use of Military Force, legalization of marijuana protection bill and a reprimand of the Burmese government for the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.
Kennedy told NBC News that McConnell is simply looking out for the Republican conference. “Now Mitch and I don’t agree on every issue, but he takes a lot of arrows for a lot of senators, adding that “he’s very good at it.”
Many conservatives blame McConnell for the party’s broken promise to repeal Obamacare and for signing off on a massive spending bill that contradicted years of GOP insistence on limited government.
“The failures of the Republican Senate under his leadership have made it hard for the Republican base to get excited about voting,” David McIntosh, president of the Club for Growth, told NBC News.
McConnell explains the paucity of floor votes by saying he often doesn’t have the necessary 60 votes, which must include Democrats, to pass anything. Trump has repeatedly pushed McConnell to change the Senate rules so that a only simple majority of 51 votes is needed to pass legislation, something he has so far resisted.
McConnell’s chess moves are often a mystery to those closest to him. He only shares information with his Republican conference when he needs to and even keeps members of his leadership team in the dark.
It all adds to the sense of frustration for some.
The Senate has become “so dysfunctional” no one even tries to identify areas of agreement before drafting legislation, said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., a longtime McConnell critic.
“This isn’t just with leader McConnell. It’s this place,” said Johnson. “They’re divorced from reality.”
Durbin, a Democrat, offered grudging admiration for McConnell’s successes in the Trump era.
“This is a very difficult administration to deal with. There are very few people, if any, who have experience in the White House in dealing with the Congress and the president is unstable and unpredictable.”