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McConnell Stares Down Growing GOP Divisions After Health Care Failure


Never bet against Mitch McConnell. That was the common response from Capitol Hill Republicans when they were asked how the majority leader could possibly come up with the votes to pass a health care bill. But McConnell did lose this week, and he can't seem to pull together the votes to pass any Republican health care legislation. It was a setback for a leader who's built a reputation as one of the party's shrewdest operators.

NPR's Congressional Correspondent Susan Davis has covered Mitch McConnell for years. And she joins us now to talk about this. Sue, how much anger is there among Republicans over the collapse of this health care legislation, and how much of that anger is, like, directed at McConnell personally?

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: You know, there's frustration about the failure. I'd say there's some frustration towards the leader. One senator in particular, Wisconsin's Ron Johnson, has been a pretty public critic of the leader and how he drafted the bill largely in private. The vast majority of Senate Republicans, though, I talked to this week don't really blame McConnell for this failure. They're saying, you know, he did the best he could with what is a very narrow majority and a party that's still pretty ideologically divided on the issue of health care.

I think a lot of the resentment you're hearing towards McConnell comes from the outside, from off Capitol Hill where he's had a pretty contentious relationship with a lot of the activist conservatist (ph) - activist conservative groups. You know, in 2014, he kind of declared war against a lot of these groups in the 2014 primary fights. And he engaged in all these primaries to try and defeat Tea Party candidates. And he won every one of those primaries, or the establishment won every one of those primaries. And those wins helped them take the majority in 2014. So I don't think McConnell would make any apologies for that.

CORNISH: When you use a term like declaring war, though, it makes me wonder how he got this reputation...

DAVIS: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...In the first place, right?

DAVIS: Yeah. You know, I always tell one story to help you understand Mitch McConnell. And he tells this story, too, to help you understand Mitch McConnell. You have to go way back to when Mitch McConnell was a baby. When he was 2 years old, he was diagnosed with polio. And for years, he had to undergo really rough polio treatments with the assistance of his mother that often required him not to be able to move and to remain completely still. Think about the discipline that would take in a child. So I think that ability to be intensely disciplined and remain perfectly still is also how you could describe Mitch McConnell as a senator today. He's a patient like no other.

CORNISH: Still, there's no shortage of ambition in the Senate, right?

DAVIS: (Laughter).

CORNISH: I mean somebody must be gunning for that job. And yet, he's never really been challenged.

DAVIS: You know, I think it has a lot to do with the kind of Republican that Mitch McConnell is. If you compare him to someone like House Speaker Paul Ryan - Paul Ryan is someone who I think is seen and both sees himself as sort of an intellectual conservative, an ideas guy. Ryan will say that the politics of the job is the part that he hates the most.

Mitch McConnell - it's the opposite. He loves the political fight. He is a tactical guy. He wrote in his book that he published a couple of years ago that he saw my first obligation has always been to help the party succeed. It just means winning. And I think that explains why he's been able to lead the party without any kind of opposition over the past 10 years. Republicans just believe that everything Mitch McConnell does is for the good of the party and to win. Unlike a lot of his colleagues, he's never had any ambition to be president. He's only ever wanted to be Senate majority leader. And I don't think you can underestimate the reserve of goodwill that he's built over his 34-year career.

CORNISH: So why has this last couple of months been such a challenge for him?

DAVIS: You know, this is the first time he's been majority leader under a Republican president. And it's only been for about six months. I don't think you can underestimate the fact that Republicans are still trying to figure out how to navigate Washington with Donald Trump as president. He's really changing what it means to be a Republican and the difference in what sort of that policy agenda should look like. So congressional leaders are still trying to figure out not only how to work together but to work with Donald Trump and how to make this new Republican grip on power in Washington function.

CORNISH: NPR's Susan Davis, thank you.

DAVIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.