WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he’s working closely with Democrats to avoid a government shutdown this fall, he’s fine with President Trump’s apparent reversal on meeting North Korea’s dictator, and he has little interest in another Senate debate over immigration reform.
In a wide-ranging interview with USA TODAY, the Kentucky Republican said Trump is handling the negotiations with North Korea “just right” and he hopes the summit to discuss denuclearization on the Korean peninsula will go forward.
That was a reversal from Thursday when, after Trump announced he was cancelling the June 12 meeting, McConnell said he welcomed the cancellation because the North Koreans were “playing with us.” On Friday, after Trump said the U.S. may go forward with the meeting, McConnell said the North Koreans have “played with us for decades.”
But, he added, “I hope the summit occurs and I think (Trump’s) handling it just right.”
McConnell refused to criticize Trump’s attacks on the FBI and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign. Trump has called that probe a “witch hunt” and leveled misleading attacks on the FBI’s handling of the inquiry.
“I don’t have any observations to make about” Mueller’s investigation, McConnell told USA TODAY.
Pressed to comment on Trump’s criticisms of the probe, McConnell said: “I decline.”
He said he was focusing all his energy on the Republican agenda.
“We’ve had an extraordinary 17 months," McConnell said, calling it the best period of successes for right-of-center Republicans since he won his first term in the Senate in 1984.
McConnell declined to say whether he was concerned that the Republican Party was now fully tied to a president who takes a protectionist approach to trade and who is enmeshed in allegations of extramarital affairs with a former porn star, among other things.
“What I’m happy about is the president’s sending us great conservative judges,” McConnell said. He noted that the Senate has confirmed 21 Trump-nominated circuit judges since Trump's inauguration in January 2017.
He also crowed about the booming economy, the GOP tax cut law, and the slate of Obama-era federal regulations Congress has overturned.
Those are things “we had always dreamed of being able (to do) that we’re now able to do because we have someone in the White House who will support the initiatives we have and make initiatives that we approve of,” McConnell said.
With the House poised to debate immigration bills next month, McConnell signaled that he had little appetite for another contentious debate on that issue. He said if the House passes legislation that Trump opposes — such as a pending proposal that would grant legal status to the undocumented immigrants who came here as children — he will not bring that up for a vote in the Senate.
“I’m not interested in having another experience like I did in February where we had a wide-open immigration debate for a week and were unable to pass anything,” McConnell said. At that time, four competing immigration bills all came up short of the 60 votes needed for most legislation in the Senate, including a Trump-backed measure that got just 39 votes.
“If on the other hand, the House were to pass a bill the president was supportive of and there was the potential of actually making a law — rather than just engaging in a wheel-spinning exercise — I would take a good hard look at it,” McConnell added.
The GOP leader sounded optimistic about the 2018 midterm elections. He noted that Republicans are on offense in at least six races, with Democratic incumbents running for re-election in states Trump won by significant margins in 2016.
He singled out the Florida Senate contest as one where the GOP challenger, Gov. Rick Scott, was raising gobs of money and positing himself to oust incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson.
“In Florida, of course, we have a voracious fundraiser as our candidate there,” McConnell said. “I think Gov. Scott raised $3 million in first three weeks. I would love to clone him and put him everywhere.”
He also said he expected Republicans to be “very competitive in West Virginia,” even though Don Blankenship, a GOP candidate who lost the primary and has attacked McConnell, has vowed to launch a third-party bid.
“West Virginia is arguably the strongest Trump state,” he said. “The president is very interested in putting West Virginia in the Republican column.”
Asked if he was going to challenge Blankenship’s third-party candidacy, McConnell laughed and did not answer. West Virginia has a "sore loser" law to prevent failed primary candidates from running in the general election.
McConnell dismissed questions about whether another star GOP recruit, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, was living up to expectations. Hawley has been criticized by some Republicans for lackluster fundraising and minimal campaigning, while his opponent, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, has amassed a huge campaign war chest.
“All the Democratic incumbent senators in red states have done a good job on fundraising,” McConnell said. “There’s no question that the surge of energy on the left has been demonstrated in contributions, as well as turnout in places where there have been special elections."
He called Hawley a “very sharp candidate” and said he was not concerned about his showing so far.
Even as he trumpeted the GOP’s prospects of increasing its Senate majority, McConnell said he has developed a great working relationship with the Senate’s top Democrat, Charles Schumer of New York.
Earlier this week, Schumer said he and McConnell were “getting along very well. And I think we even enjoy each other's company.”
“I would agree with that,” McConnell said, adding that they had a “really good time” together in February, when the Kentucky Republican invited his New York counterpart to an event at the University of Louisville.
McConnell said that rapport is one reason he’s confident that Congress will pass the necessary spending bills this fall that keep the government funded and open.
“We’re not going to be shutting the government down,” McConnell said. “There’s pretty high hopes and optimism and cooperation on both sides on the appropriations process. And that’s the way you avoid kind of a September the 30th government shutdown scenario.”