Donald Trump Takes Aim Again at Mitch McConnell

By Byron Tau in Washington, D.C., and Louise Radnofsky in Bridgewater, N.J. Features Dow Jones Newswires

President Donald Trump urged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell Thursday to "get back to work" on health care, a tax overhaul and infrastructure legislation. He also demurred when asked if Mr. McConnell should stay on as GOP leader.

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The comments by Mr. Trump marked the second consecutive day of public antagonism from the president directed at the Republican leader in the Senate over a stalled agenda. No major legislation has passed after more than six months of unified GOP control of the government in Washington.

In brief remarks to reporters, Mr. Trump said the failure of Congress to advance a health-care bill is a "disgrace" and the president refused to answer a question about whether Mr. McConnell of Kentucky should step down as leader in the Senate.

"If he doesn't get repeal and replace done, if he doesn't get taxes done, meaning cuts and reform, and if he doesn't get a very easy one to get done -- infrastructure -- if he doesn't get that done, then you should ask me that question," Mr. Trump said about Mr. McConnell.

The strained relations between Mr. Trump and his own party's Senate caucus have no equal in recent political history, several political observers said. In addition to criticizing his colleagues, the president's political allies have put money behind ad campaigns targeting vulnerable GOP senators up for re-election next year.

"There's always going to be infighting between Capitol Hill and the White House or between the House and the Senate," said Doug Heye, a veteran Republican strategist who has worked on both Capitol Hill and in the George W. Bush administration. "What's different is how these fights are spilling out in public."

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The tension comes at a time when the White House is looking to push major infrastructure and tax bills, and lawmakers will have to deal with a number of fiscal and spending issues in the fall.

Congress must act by Sept. 29 to address the nation's debt ceiling, and Sept. 30 is the end of the fiscal year, and thus the deadline for Congress to authorize legislation to keep the government functioning when the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Forecasters in The Wall Street Journal's monthly survey of economists see on average a 22% chance of the government shutting down at the end of next month and a 17% chance that the U.S. Treasury will, at least temporarily, skip making payments on obligations such as government payroll or issuing Social Security checks to manage looming funding challenges.

Similar showdowns have rocked Wall Street in recent years. Although calamities were averted, that's no guarantee of a clear path now.

"The annual games of Debt Ceiling Roulette and Federal Budget Chicken pose greater risks than ever this year," said Amy Crews Cutts, chief economist of the credit reporting agency Equifax.

Mr. McConnell, who is known for his discipline and taciturn political style, has largely avoided public conflicts with the president, preferring to focus on looking for ways to advance the broader Republican agenda through Congress. He has confined most of his criticism of Mr. Trump to the president's habit of stirring up controversy on Twitter, telling The Wall Street Journal in a February interview that the president's online habits made passing the GOP agenda more difficult.

The current public spat between the two men started after Mr. McConnell leveled a rare public criticism of Mr. Trump, saying at an event in Kentucky this week that the White House tried to impose "artificial deadlines" in the monthslong debate over health care that were "unrelated to the reality of the complexity of legislating."

"Our new president has of course not been in this line of work before and, I think, had excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process," Mr. McConnell said.

Mr. McConnell and Mr. Trump spoke on the phone Wednesday evening and "health care was certainly discussed," according to the White House. "You can see the president's tweets, obviously there's some frustration, " said White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders about the relationship between the two men.

Republican political observers said that Mr. Trump's presidency and legislative legacy is tied up with Mr. McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), all of whom will need to work together to get any agenda items through Congress.

"It's a highly unusual move and highly unproductive in terms of advancing the president agenda," said Ryan Williams, a GOP consultant, about the president's comments. "If he has a problem with what Sen. McConnell said, that's something that's best ironed out in private."

"The leader has spoken repeatedly about the path forward regarding Obamacare repeal and replace on the Senate floor, at media availabilities and in Kentucky," a spokesman for Mr. McConnell said. He declined to address the president's comments.

One of Mr. Trump's allies, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, wrote on Twitter that Mr. McConnell "has been the best leader we've had in my time in the Senate, through very tough challenges. I fully support him."

Beyond Mr. McConnell, the president has criticized or antagonized other lawmakers who will be key votes in Congress. The GOP majority is small in the Senate, where there are 52 Republican to 48 Democratic-aligned lawmakers, so the defection of just three senators can spell defeat, as was the case in the health-care vote.

Sen. John McCain (R, Ariz.), a Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war, cast one of the deciding votes against the health-care bill last month. Early in the presidential campaign, Mr. Trump antagonized Mr. McCain by saying in 2015 that "he's not a war hero" because he was captured by the North Vietnamese during the war.

In addition, White House allies have targeted Republican Sens. Dean Heller of Nevada and Jeff Flake of Arizona with negative ads; they represent two of the most vulnerable Republicans up for re-election in 2018. Mr. Trump has also publicly criticized Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska), another senator who helped torpedo the health-care effort last month.

"I think what's baffling to so many Republicans is that the president has spent more time criticizing Republicans and has barely said a word about the ten Senate Democrats who are up for re-election in states that he won," said Brian Walsh, a Republican strategist who has worked on Senate races and on Capitol Hill.

--Natalie Andrews and Josh Zumbrun contributed to this article.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 10, 2017 17:24 ET (21:24 GMT)