By Eli Stokols
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose relationship has been tense for months, offered a united front Monday to promote their plans to rewrite the tax code as the Senate nears a critical vote.
The White House had asked for the meeting over a week ago, according to a person familiar with the decision, and orchestrated a joint news conference that followed in the Rose Garden where the two men took turns praising each other.
The congenial appearance stood in contrast to the president's statements at a cabinet meeting earlier on Monday, where he decried how Congress had failed to pass key parts of his agenda and made a nod to threats from his former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, to declare war on the Republican establishment.
After the lunch meeting, Mr. Trump eased away from promoting primary challenges to Republican senators, as Mr. Bannon is threatening, and made clear he would sign a bipartisan health care bill that would diminish the political fallout that could come from his decision to cut off Affordable Care Act insurance subsidies — two moves that could help Mr. McConnell.
"My relationship with this man is outstanding," Mr. Trump said with the Kentucky senator standing beside him at a news conference at the White House. "We're fighting for lower taxes, big tax cuts — the biggest tax cuts in the history of our nation. We're fighting for tax reform as part of that."
"We have the same agenda," Mr. McConnell said. "We've been friends and acquaintances for a long time. We talk frequently. We don't give you a readout every time we have a conversation, but frequently we talk on the weekends about the issues that are before us."
The meeting marked a rare one-on-one session between the president and the Senate majority leader in which both men could speak frankly and discuss a crowded legislative agenda. Mr. McConnell hadn't met with the president since early September when he and House Speaker Paul Ryan were caught off guard by Mr. Trump agreeing to a debt-ceiling increase proposed by Democrats.
Tensions had been churning between Mr. Trump and the top GOP senator since August when Mr. McConnell told a Kentucky audience that the president had "excessive expectations" about how quickly the legislative process works. Mr. Trump also has blamed Mr. McConnell for the failure in the Senate of the Republican effort to repeal the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
With Republicans anxious to notch a legislative win before 2018 and the midterm election cycle, Messrs. McConnell and Trump's display of comity could mark a turn toward pragmatic collaboration.
The joint appearance came at the start of a week that will see the Senate vote on a budget resolution, which must pass in order to pave the way for Republicans to take up tax legislation.
Under a special process tied to the budget, Mr. McConnell normally can't afford to lose more than two GOP votes to pass it without Democratic support. Yet, friction in the chamber has been building after the president's recent Twitter feud with Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.). Mr. Trump has sparred with Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), whose vote against the GOP's effort to repeal the ACA stung the White House earlier this summer.
With Sen. Thad Cochran (R., Miss.) ailing and unable to attend Senate votes this week, Mr. McConnell can afford to lose only one more Republican vote on the measure, which requires at least 50 votes, with Vice President Mike Pence casting a tie-breaking vote. No Democrats are expected to support it.
Mr. McConnell made some other ground with the president during their session as Mr. Trump signaled that he is ready to sign bipartisan health-care legislation — a move that may diminish the political fallout from his decision to cut off insurance subsidies. The repercussions of that decision with voters would be felt first by the senators up for re-election next year, if no action on the subsidies is taken.
A bipartisan health-care effort, spearheaded by Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Patty Murray of Washington, would authorize funding for the ACA subsidies in exchange for giving states more flexibility under the law.
Mr. Alexander told reporters Monday night that Mr. Trump had called him on Saturday and encouraged him to strike a deal with Ms. Murray.
"He said, 'I don't want people to suffer' — those are his words," Mr. Alexander said.
Mr. Trump has previously been critical of funding the insurer subsidies and earlier on Monday, he predicted Congress would reach a short-term bipartisan deal to keep them funded.
"We're meeting — Democrats, Republicans are meeting right now, and right now they're working on something very special," Mr. Trump said.
It's unclear if the House will support the bill since many House Republicans view the subsidies as a bailout for insurers.
The president also eased away from encouraging primary challenges to members of Mr. McConnell's GOP majority. Mr. Trump said he would seek to dissuade Mr. Bannon from backing primary challengers to Republican incumbents whom Mr. McConnell needs to pass party-line legislation. "I'm going to see if we can talk him out of that," he said.
Hours earlier, Mr. Trump blamed Mr. McConnell and Republicans in Congress for the stalled legislative agenda and expressed support for Mr. Bannon, who on Saturday told a group of conservative voters that they are "in a season of war with the GOP establishment."
"We're not getting the job done," the president said to reporters at the outset of a cabinet meeting. "And I'm not going to blame myself, I'm going to be honest — they're not getting the job done. I can understand where Steve Bannon is coming from."
In the Rose Garden, Mr. McConnell discussed the importance of nominating Republican candidates capable of winning competitive general election races in many states. He cited the failure of 2010 GOP candidates Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell, who won Republican Party primary elections but proved unpalatable to the general electorate, in Nevada and Delaware, respectively.
"You have to nominate people who can actually win, because winners make policy and losers go home," Mr. McConnell said.
Mr. Trump said he would soon be "surprising some people" with an economic-development package, acknowledging he had yet to inform Mr. McConnell about it. And as he spoke about his desire to address "out of control" prescription-drug costs, he drew a distinction between Mr. McConnell and himself.
"They contribute massive amounts of money to political people," Mr. Trump said. "I don't know, Mitch, maybe even to you. But I have to tell you, they contribute massive amounts of money."
He added: "Me? I'm not interested in their money. I don't need their money."
The president returned repeatedly to the idea he and Mr. McConnell promoted at the start of their remarks. "Just so you understand, the Republican Party is very unified," he said.
–Kristina Peterson contributed to this article.
Write to Eli Stokols at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
October 16, 2017 20:03 ET (00:03 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2017 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.