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Congress Wraps Up 2017


Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is ending 2017 with an observation.


MITCH MCCONNELL: This has not been a very bipartisan year. Most of our big accomplishments we largely had to do Republicans-only.

INSKEEP: Now McConnell is contemplating whether he can operate differently in 2018. The Senate Republican leader spoke with two of our colleagues, Kelsey Snell and Susan Davis. And Sue is in our studios. Good morning.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What makes McConnell think about bipartisanship now?

DAVIS: Obviously we're heading into an election year, which often focuses the mind of party leaders.

INSKEEP: Good moment to seem kind of accommodating, I guess. OK.

DAVIS: And he is looking at his majority and looking at the landscape. And I don't think he's interested in provoking the kind of partisan battles that we saw that defined 2017. It's notable because it's a bit in contrast to House Speaker Paul Ryan, who in the closing weeks of the Congress has started to make the argument that Republicans next year should move after their tax cut victory and start looking at federal spending - specifically entitlement programs, aka the third rails of American politics.

INSKEEP: Social Security, Medicare.

DAVIS: Medicare, Medicaid, social welfare programs. And Mitch McConnell does not share the speaker's enthusiasm.


MCCONNELL: I think entitlement changes, to be sustained, almost always have to be bipartisan. And I don't think, you know, one-party-only entitlement changes is something I'm interested in doing. The House may have a different agenda. If our Democratic friends in the Senate want to join us to tackle any kind of entitlement reform, I'd be happy to take a look at it.

DAVIS: There's a reason for that. If you look at recent history - even just this year when Republicans tried to change entitlements like Medicaid in the Affordable Care Act fight, when Republicans tried to change Social Security in 2004 - there were political consequences. And he's not trying to repeat that.

INSKEEP: He would rather do something bipartisan if he has to do anything at all. There is a potential bipartisan matter on the table having to do with DACA, people brought to this country illegally as children and whether their protections will be extended, which President Trump has at the moment said they'll end.

DAVIS: There is some frustration at Democrats that they let Republicans leave town without resolution on immigration. But Republicans and Democrats in the Senate both say there are sincere, good faith negotiations going on to try and reach a comprehensive immigration deal in January. That is one of those areas of bipartisanship that Mitch McConnell referred. Senator Jeff Flake, who is one of the negotiators - he's a Republican from Arizona - said that he has a commitment from the leader to get a vote on immigration legislation in January. And Mitch McConnell has said he will bring it to the floor if these negotiators can come up with something that can get 60 votes.

INSKEEP: OK, something potentially bipartisan. Well, if you're Mitch McConnell, and you're thinking about bipartisanship, what do you do about Obamacare?

DAVIS: Yeah, so there was a really interesting shift this week at the White House at the signing ceremony for the tax bill where the president was talking about it and said the tax bill also effectively repealed Obamacare because inside of that tax bill they zero out the tax penalty for the individual mandate - bit of a mission-accomplished statement. So we asked Mitch McConnell, do you agree with the president that it's time to move on from health care? And this is what he said.


MCCONNELL: We obviously were unable to completely repeal and replace with a 52-48 Senate. We'll have to take a look at what that looks like with a 51-49 Senate, but I think we'll probably move on to other issues.

DAVIS: He's, of course, referring to the loss of the seat in Alabama. It also didn't necessarily go over well. Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, in response to our interview tweeted out that he's not ready to give up on the effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. But it sounds like the leader's ready to move on.

INSKEEP: Well, you mentioned that it's an election year, Sue Davis - or it's going to be an election year in 2018. How much trouble does Mitch McConnell think his party is in?

DAVIS: With a 51-49 Senate, I don't think that either party leader can take anything for granted in an election year. The dynamics of the 2018 election in some ways work to Mitch McConnell's advantage simply because Republicans are on offense more than they're on defense. And he talked about 2018 dynamics. Here he is.


MCCONNELL: We have a pretty good map - you know, 25 Democrats and only eight Republicans. But I always caution my colleagues don't fall in love with the map because the last cycle there were 24 of us up and only 10 of them. And my colleague Senator Schumer was so confident he was going to have my job. And he called me up the day before the election and said he'd hope we'd have a high-level of cooperation. I called him back the day after the elections - said, I sure hope so.

DAVIS: I think the Alabama outcome and having a Democrat win in the South is one of those reminders that you can't take anything for granted in politics and has sort of shaken up this dynamic that thinks that the Republican majority isn't in doubt in 2018.

INSKEEP: I'm also thinking of the year 2006 when Republicans also seemed to have profound advantages, but everything fell against them - every single thing, down to the last recount. And they lost the Senate and the House.

DAVIS: This is going to be one of the interesting things to watch in 2018 - is you have these dynamics we're looking at - a president with a 38-percent approval rating, Congressional generic polling that shows that Democrats have a double-digit advantage going into the midterms.


DAVIS: Those could be signs of a wave coming. But I think there is some hesitance and some caution in this era of Donald Trump, who seems to be rewriting the rules of politics, to say the old rules still apply. The fundamentals of politics may still apply, and it could be a good Democratic year.

INSKEEP: NPR's Susan Davis, along with our colleague Kelsey Snell, interviewed Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader. And, Sue, thanks for bringing the tape. I really appreciate it.

DAVIS: You're welcome. 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.