By Alexander Bolton - 08-01-17 06:00 AM EDT
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is facing more questions from fellow Republicans about his decisions after the collapse of the ObamaCare repeal effort, even if his job as the GOP leader is safe.
Many in the GOP conference credit the Kentucky Republican with doing as good a job as could be expected, given the difficult circumstances.
McConnell had some doubts about whether an ObamaCare reform bill could be muscled through the Senate, given divisions within his party.
Yet without the surprise "no" vote from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the leader would at least have been able to proceed to a conference with the House.
One Republican senator -- who requested anonymity to assess McConnell's performance -- said the leader "needed to pitch a perfect game" to pass the healthcare bill.
"Unfortunately, he pitched a two-hitter," the lawmaker said, extending the baseball metaphor.
At the same time, there have been complaints about how the negotiations unfolded.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), one of three GOP "no" votes last week, lamented that she often had been left in the dark and didn't know what was in the bill until it was unveiled.
"There were so many different iterations and at the end, where were we?" she asked.
"It's 10 o'clock and we're going to vote on it in two hours, what do you think, gang?" Murkowski recalled, paraphrasing the difficult situation.
McCain regularly criticized McConnell's decision to skip committee hearings and markups, and tersely told colleagues on the floor before his pivotal vote that he didn't want such an important bill "decided by only a few people," according to a GOP source familiar with the conversations.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) was angered last month by talk that McConnell had assured moderates that a stricter formula indexing Medicaid to inflation starting in 2025 would likely never become implemented.
He accused McConnell of a "pretty significant breach of trust," implying that he was telling different factions of the conference different things to get the bill across the finish line.
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) complained that McConnell's "closed-door process" produced a flawed bill that failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act or address rising healthcare costs.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) grumbled in a video posted on Facebook that he didn't get a chance to see the comprehensive ObamaCare repeal-and-replace bill before it was unveiled, even though he was a member of the special 13-person working group that was supposed to craft it.
Colleagues say McConnell needs to change his tactics ahead of the healthcare debate by allowing more members to have hands-on ability to shape legislative language, instead of passively receiving updates in lunch meetings of the entire conference.
"There need to be more member-to-member discussions," said the senator who earlier compared McConnell's performance to a well-pitched baseball game that fell just short.
Murkowski said the lesson heading into the tax reform debate is to rely more on open committee hearings and markups.
"I like process, I think process is good for all of us. I think it makes us a better institution and it allows the public to have greater confidence in us," she said.
Other lawmakers are urging McConnell to take a broader view of legislating.
On Monday, in an op-ed published in Politico, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), an independent-minded conservative, asked if the party under McConnell's leadership had become too focused on tactics and winning political victories at the expense of its principles.
Although he didn't mention him by name, Flake noted that McConnell stated his No. 1 priority after Obama's election in 2008 was to limit him to being one-term president - and not to set out a conservative agenda.
Even McConnell's attempt on Friday to close the door on the healthcare debate and move on to other pressing issues such as tax reform was second-guessed.
"I believe we'll come back after all the victory laps by the Democrats on healthcare, all the media exultations, I believe we'll come back and honor our promise," Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) told reporters moments after the vote early Friday morning, touting his Consumer Freedom Amendment as the key to victory on the issue.
That immediately caught the attention of Democrats who thought it could be an early move by Cruz to challenge McConnell's leadership.
"Don't look now, but Ted Cruz is on CNN beginning his campaign for McConnell's job," Adam Jentleson, a Democratic operative and former senior aide to Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) tweeted.
In reality, McConnell has little to worry about in terms of a leadership challenge.
Neither Cruz nor any other Republican will challenge McConnell in the foreseeable future.
Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), the second-ranking member of the Senate GOP leadership, has ruled out challenging McConnell for the top job, even though Cornyn will have to step down as whip at the end of the Congress because of term limits.
But as new senators with increasingly anti-establishment views get elected to Congress, McConnell might find it increasingly difficult to manage his caucus - or win re-election to his job without a challenge.
Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), who is running for the Senate seat vacated this year by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), said last week that "McConnell's got to go."
He called the GOP leader the "head of the swamp."
Still, some Senate Republicans say they doubt the process would have turned out much differently had McConnell first moved the legislation through the Senate Finance and Health Committees, giving colleagues a chance to amend it before the floor debate.
Republicans have only a two-seat majority on the Finance Committee, on which Sen. Dean Heller (Nev.), the most vulnerable GOP incumbent in 2018, sits. Democrats would have forced him to take a slew of tough political votes in committee.
And Republicans have only a one-seat advantage on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, on which two swing votes - Murkowski and conservative Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) - sit. Either one could have derailed the bill before it reached the floor.
Republicans said before the bill collapsed that McConnell was either going to be hailed as a hero if it passed or take a good share of blame if it failed.
After such a major legislative defeat, this is likely the low point of his year, colleagues point out.
McConnell's defenders say his job was made significantly more difficult by President Trump's inconsistent messaging.
They point to his insistence that Congress pass legislation that repealed and replaced ObamaCare, which was reversed when, seemingly impatient with the process, he urged lawmakers to simply repeal the law instead.
The quickest way for McConnell to win his way back into the GOP's good graces would be to rack up accomplishments.
Republican lawmakers acknowledge it won't be easy with an ideologically divided conference and McCain out for weeks undergoing cancer treatment - reducing the Republicans' effective majority to 51 seats.
But given the challenges, they'd rather take their chances with McConnell, a battle-tested general, than anyone else.
"I've had my ups and downs with the leader, but he's been a steady hand," said a second senator, who predicted that McConnell will keep his job for the foreseeable future.