McConnell seeks big influence over Trump-era GOP

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) is planning to have a major influence over Republican policymaking even after he steps down as party leader at the end of the year and is working behind the scenes to lay out an agenda for his party if it wins unified control of government.

Senate Republicans say McConnell is building the groundwork for a big budget reconciliation package that would extend the Trump-era tax cuts and provide a major boost for defense spending.

Even after stepping down as the longest-serving Senate party leader in American history, McConnell would still be well-positioned to have his fingers on moving former President Trump’s agenda through Congress, if Trump were to beat President Biden in November.

A Republican senator said McConnell is already working behind the scenes to pull together the pieces of a massive reconciliation package so Senate Republicans would be able to hit the ground running if they win back control of the Senate, Trump wins the White House and Republicans keep control of the House.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) invited Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) to speak to the Senate Republican Policy lunch last week where the Speaker got the ball rolling on putting together a Republican agenda for a budget reconciliation package, in case Republicans find themselves in control of the White House and both chambers of Congress.

But senators say McConnell has been a driving force behind the scenes on the Senate side.

“This looks to me like a McConnell-driven project. McConnell invited [Johnson] to come over, McConnell spoke repeatedly” at the policy meeting, “and he kept emphasizing, ‘You know we really need to be prepared, we need to get legislation written now,’” said a senator who attended the meeting. “Mitch seemed very focused.”

An aide for Ernst confirmed she invited Johnson to the meeting.

McConnell’s staff also thanked Senate Republican staff directors during a meeting last week for working with them on putting together ideas for next year’s budget reconciliation package, according to a source familiar with the meeting.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who is running to succeed McConnell as Senate GOP leader, said McConnell has been “very much” involved in putting together the Republican agenda for next year, in case the GOP wins back the majority.

“We need be prepared to hit the ground running in January,” he said.

He said McConnell is “very much a part of this process.”

“It’s going to be really important to all of us if President Trump is elected and if we have majority of both houses to be able to extend the current expiring tax provisions,” said Cornyn, a member of the Finance Committee.

If Republicans control the White House and Congress next year, they can get around a Senate Democratic filibuster by putting their top-priority proposals into a budget reconciliation package.

McConnell’s allies say he wants to prepare colleagues and the relevant committees of jurisdiction as much as possible to leave his successor — whether it’s Cornyn, Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) or someone else — well-positioned to move legislation soon after Trump takes office.

“It is natural and consistent with his M.O. [modus operandi] that he wants to leave whoever the next leader is in as good a position as possible to tackle the problems they’ll be looking at in 2025. While he never takes anything for granted, you prepare for all eventualities including the one in which Republicans have the House, the Senate and the White House,” said Rohit Kumar, co-leader of PricewaterhouseCoopers’s national tax office and McConnell’s former deputy chief of staff.

“There will be intense pressure to move as quickly as possible on a reconciliation bill,” he said.

McConnell tried to mend fences with Trump on Thursday during a lunch at the National Republican Senatorial Committee headquarters, and he is poised to hold a senior committee position when he steps down from leadership in January.

McConnell spoke to Trump for the first time since their falling out in December 2020 over recognizing Biden as the president-elect, and shook his hand.

Republican senators in the meeting said Trump praised McConnell and made no mention of their feud.

Senate Republicans say they wasted valuable time in 2017, the first few months of Trump’s first term, because they didn’t have a clear plan for how to use the budget reconciliation process to get Trump’s agenda past Democratic opposition.

Few Republicans in Washington thought Trump would beat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, and when he triumphed unexpectedly, they spent weeks debating whether to tackle repeal of the Affordable Care Act and how to go about doing it.

McConnell has the seniority to become the chair of the Appropriations Committee or Defense Appropriations Subcommittee in 2025. He is also a senior member of the Senate Rules Committee.

While he could very well let his good friend, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who is up for reelection in 2026, take the Appropriations Committee’s gavel in a new Senate Republican majority, there’s no doubt that McConnell would wield a huge amount of influence on the committee next year.

“He hasn’t made a decision on that yet, but he obviously would still be incredibly influential whatever he does, whether in Appropriations or whatever role he has. He’s someone who knows how to operate within the chamber and understands the rules, knows how to make a big impact regardless of whether he’s in the elected leadership,” a Senate GOP strategist said.

McConnell has endorsed a proposal unveiled by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who would become chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee in a Republican majority, to increase defense spending from 2.9 percent to 5 percent of gross domestic product over the next five to seven years.

McConnell called the Senate’s special budget reconciliation rules that could extend the Trump-era tax cuts an “important tool.”

But he didn’t comment on his behind-the-scenes role this spring to get Senate Republicans on the same page in case they find themselves back in the majority.

“The first step is we need to have a Republican president, a Republican House and Republican Senate or there will be no reconciliation at all. It is an important tool. We hope to have an opportunity to use it,” he told reporters.

Copyright 2024 Nexstar Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

For the latest news, weather, sports, and streaming video, head to The Hill.