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Internal GOP tension rises as McConnell’s deal-making puts him at odds with McCarthy

By Melanie Zanona and Manu Raju, CNN

Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell had such a reputation for stopping Democratic legislation and keeping his conference together that he earned the nickname “the grim reaper.”

But now he’s helped push through a string of major bipartisan victories that Democrats in particular are touting, splintering his own conference and leaving some House Republicans fuming.

“Of course there was big frustration” with those Senate Republican votes, said Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, an ally of House GOP leadership and co-founder of the hardline House Freedom Caucus. “I thought that was totally wrong.”

The divide is most pronounced between McConnell and House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, who has whipped his members to oppose some of the big-ticket items that McConnell has backed, raising concerns among some Republicans about how the two will function in a potential GOP majority next year.

“Too often we’re seeing Republicans in the Senate losing fights because they’re not sticking together,” a Republican House member told CNN. “In the majority, we would hope that the Senate would be a partner, rather than an obstacle.”

McCarthy, who meets regularly with McConnell when both chambers are in session, said he has directly complained to McConnell about mandatory spending levels in bills that the Senate has sent to the House.

“They go too big,” McCarthy said.

Over the past year, McConnell and some of his deputies have supported bipartisan deals on infrastructure, gun violence and the global chip shortage — all of which the majority of Senate Republicans opposed, putting McConnell in the minority of his own party. What angered some conservatives most recently: McConnell’s threat to hold up a broader version of the chips bill because Democrats were pursuing their own party-line economic package.

Ultimately, though, McConnell agreed to support a scaled-back version of the chips bill as Democratic talks appeared to be stalling out. When Democrats suddenly announced a deal on their economic plan after the chips bill passed on its way to President Joe Biden’s desk, some Republicans were openly questioning his strategy.

“I think that was a mistake,” Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, said Thursday when asked about McConnell’s threat. “When you make a threat, you should follow through. … Bluffing doesn’t work when you don’t follow through.”

McConnell’s allies say his willingness to back bipartisan deals, even if it puts him at odds with McCarthy and most of his party, is partly driven by a desire to preserve the Senate filibuster as well as to show that the GOP is not reflexively opposed to middle-of-the-road legislation. By deputizing Republicans to be involved in bipartisan talks on a number of issues, McConnell has helped Republicans secure the best deal possible, his supporters say.

“Leader McConnell has a different role than other members of the Republican caucus in the Senate and members here,” said GOP Rep. Andy Barr of Kentucky. “His job is to regain the majority … He plays the long game and I would never second-guess his tactical moves to do what he needs to do with his members in those states.”

When McConnell backed the gun violence bill this summer, the first major piece of gun legislation in three decades, he made clear that he believed the bill could appeal to suburban voters upset by the rising cases of mass shootings.

“It is no secret that we have lost ground in suburban areas. We pretty much own rural and small town America, and I think this is a sensible solution to the problem before us,” McConnell said, adding he hoped it would be “viewed favorably by voters in the suburbs that we need to regain in order to hopefully be a majority next year.”

And when he backed the infrastructure deal last summer, McConnell said it became “unnecessarily” politicized given that public works projects have long had bipartisan backing.

But when asked Thursday about his support of the chips bill amid the Democratic breakthrough on their party’s economic package, McConnell didn’t hold back.

“It’s an unmitigated disaster for the country and we’re going to fight it as hard as we can,” McConnell told reporters of the deal cut by Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York.

Other Republicans pinned the blame on Manchin, who had initially balked at including climate and tax provisions in the bill before agreeing to both in a sprawling package that would also take aim at prescription drug prices and extend expiring health care subsidies.

“It’s an amazing flip-flop,” Cornyn said of Manchin. “You can’t trust anybody around here anymore.”

Yet the McConnell critics go beyond Capitol Hill.

Former President Donald Trump, whom McConnell severed ties with after the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, has repeatedly called for someone to oust McConnell as GOP leader, though no one has stepped up to the plate or has the support internally to prevent him from staying atop the conference. McConnell, who cemented his legacy by ushering in three conservative Supreme Court justices, maintains a good standing within his own Senate conference.

But in the House, where tensions between the two chambers are hardly new, it’s a different story. His critics there are questioning McConnell’s decision-making and expressing anger that he and other Republicans assisted Democrats in notching a string of key victories in an otherwise difficult political environment for Biden’s party. And the divide between House and Senate Republicans — on everything from policy to politics — could become even more pronounced next year if Republicans win the majority, where they’d have to make deals with a Biden administration on must-pass items like government funding.

“Mitch McConnell is one of the best allies that Democrats has ever had,” said Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, a longtime McConnell critic who recently lost his bid to serve in the Senate. “He compromises on far too much, to the detriment of us conservatives and our values.”

Some Republicans believe McConnell was outmaneuvered by Schumer.

McConnell and some of his deputies ended up backing the chips bill on Wednesday as it appeared Democratic discussions on the economic deal were on the brink of collapse — only to learn hours after their vote on the chips bill that Democrats had reached an agreement on the economic package.

“I think everyone got surprised certainly by representations that had been made by Democrats about this deal, and I think there was certain amount of people being blindsided — not only on our side but on the Democrats’ side,” Senate Republican Whip John Thune told CNN when asked if the GOP got played by letting the chips bill go through before the Democrats’ economic deal was cut.

Asked if McConnell played this properly, Thune said: “You’ll have to chat with him about that.”

Some House Republicans have expressed understanding about the position McConnell faces in the 50-50 Senate.

“I think he thought in each case, they got the best deal they could,” said veteran Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican. “He knows when to hold them and when to fold them as well as anybody in this building.”

And House GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik of New York said the real anger should be directed at the Democrats.

“In my district, they are most upset with Chuck Schumer,” she said.

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Article Topic Follows: CNN - US Politics

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