The Republican tax bill is poised to become President Trump's most significant first-year accomplishment, but the Senate success rests largely with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the quiet Washington insider who accomplished the legislative feat only by shattering the very norms he long championed in Congress.
McConnell is known as an institutionalist, less a devotee of a defined agenda than to the traditions of the Senate, which he’s aspired to lead ever since winning his first election in Kentucky more than 30 years ago.
But despite his ascribed allegiance to upholding long-standing Senate rules, including so-called regular order, McConnell’s major achievements, including the tax bill, have come from sometimes abandoning those ideals.
Passage of the GOP tax bill delivers a significant professional achievement for McConnell, though it’s been a mixed year for Republicans who control Congress and the White House — a period that will be defined less by its policy achievements than by the tactics used to get there.
While Republicans failed to deliver their repeal of the Affordable Care Act after a rushed and secretive process, they can point to the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch as an early victory.
But that came only after McConnell took the unprecedented step of refusing to consider President Obama’s pick, Judge Merrick Garland, when the seat first opened in early 2016 after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. The maneuver worked when Trump was elected and Republicans were able to preserve the conservative majority on the high court.
And during Gorsuch’s confirmation, McConnell broke with the Senate’s storied filibuster tradition to seat Trump’s nominee with a simple majority, rather than the 60 votes long required.
Passage of the tax bill was similarly unconventional. The 490-page bill was unveiled only hours before a middle-of-the-night vote early Saturday, without the typical debate expected for such a sweeping package that will affect nearly all Americans. It was approved to applause from Republicans in the chamber, but the Democratic side was empty, senators long gone.
By contrast, the tax reform bill passed under President Reagan was debated and crafted on a bipartisan basis over more than 18 months.
McConnell, questioned afterward about the closed process, defended his legacy.
“This has gone through the regular order,” he told reporters. “There have been multiple hearings, mark-ups, an open-amendment process. Everyone had plenty of opportunity to see the measure.”
Democrats balked at that assertion, noting the bill was still being changed as late as Friday evening, with scribbled notes in the margins. McConnell dismissed their complaints as the language of defeat.
“You complain about process when you’re losing,” he said.
McConnell has some experience there, having been on the losing side during the Obama administration as Democrats pushed healthcare, the economic stimulus and financial reform through Congress over Republican protests of unfair treatment.
Then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was the first to deploy the so-called “nuclear option” to blow up the filibuster, ending the practice for Cabinet and judicial nominees with the exception of Supreme Court picks. He did so after Republicans refused to approve any of Obama’s judicial nominees.
“I’ve been around long enough to know that both Democrats and Republicans have used middle-of-the-night machinations to get stuff done over the years,” said James P. Manley, a former top aide to Reid and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).
“But I’ve never seen anything like what I’ve seen with this tax bill,” he said. “If that was regular order, I hate to see what an attempt to jam the Senate looks like under McConnell’s leadership.”
Even newcomers to the Senate, some of whom don’t have sharp partisan elbows, bemoaned the Republican process that left Democrats as bystanders to the biggest tax overhaul since 1986.
Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat and a former governor courted by Trump to join the tax-writing effort, gave an emotional speech ahead of the vote.
“I sat down with my colleagues,” he said. “I gave them some suggestions and ideas. We brought people together thinking we could find a bipartisan way…. This, as I have seen it unfold tonight, was not designed to have one Democrat on the bill.”
Independent Sen. Angus King of Maine, an emerging custodian of institutional norms who caucuses with Democrats, harked back to Reagan’s years-long undertaking — a book was written about it — that has become legendary on Capitol Hill.
“Eighty-six is how it’s supposed to be done,” he said, referring to the year.
Republican senators, though, stand by McConnell’s leadership, especially as he guided them to the majority — and preserved it — with a legislative strategy designed to produce campaign-worthy wins.
“You have to go back to the Scalia battle — it was brilliant,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said.
Scalia’s death was announced on a Saturday afternoon, before a GOP presidential debate, and McConnell made what senators call a game-day decision that Republicans would block Obama’s nominee so the new president, who would take office nearly a year later, could pick the new justice.
Filling the court seat became a rallying cry in Republican campaigns for taking control of the White House and keeping the Senate. “It turned out to be the very strategy we needed,” said Wicker, the former chairman of the Senate GOP’s campaign committee.
This year, Senate Republicans have gone on to confirm more circuit court judges for Trump, thanks to McConnell’s decision to continue doing away with the use of the filibuster on lower court nominees.
Rather than micromanage the drafting of tax bill, McConnell and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) deputized a posse of four GOP senators shortly after last November’s election to work with the other senators in considering the contours of the legislation. The process produced a measure with broader ownership from Republicans than the failed Obamacare overhaul.
“The healthcare experience was a learning experience for all of us,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who was part of the quartet, and said senators have been talking about tax ideas for years. “This was different.”
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), a former speaker of the House in the Tar Heel state, said he most values McConnell’s patience in corralling the varied interests of senators in the 52-member majority.
“I genuinely believe Mitch McConnell will do what 49 others will want to do, even if in his heart he wishes it was something else,” Tillis said. “He doesn’t run like, ‘This is my agenda — I got to get you on board with it.’ This is, ‘We’ve got a result to produce, and I’m here to help you all produce that result.’”
Only one Republican, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, opposed the tax plan Saturday, denying McConnell a unanimous GOP vote. The bill passed 51 to 49, and next must be reconciled with the House’s version before heading to Trump for his signature.
But Corker’s insistence on no more than $1.5 trillion in new deficit spending — which he ultimately could not support — fundamentally shaped the bill that was approved.
In announcing his opposition, Corker called Trump — who has derided and mocked the senator repeatedly — in a move that one colleague said “showed a lot of class.”
“They had a clearing of the minds,” said Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), who said he talked to both men. “I’m sure the president was trying to beseech him to make it unanimous.”
Trump’s influence, though, only went so far to advance the deal — Corker told him he’d consider his vote on the final product — that McConnell already sealed.
McConnell secured the votes from other holdouts, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who had helped defeat the healthcare bill because he said it was rushed without “regular order.” In the end, McConnell had amassed the votes for passage without Corker.
It’s just this kind of prowess from McConnell, the backroom deals that brought the other senators on board, that his top critic, former White House advisor Stephen K. Bannon, uses to showcase McConnell as part of the “swamp” that needs to be drained in Washington.
Bannon, a Trump ally, is promising to run primary challengers against GOP senators who back McConnell as leader. But McConnell’s supporters say his critics vastly underestimate the leader, and how willing he is to use aggressive tactics to achieve GOP goals.