Updated at 6:52 p.m. ET
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants 2018 to be a year of bipartisanship, even if that means moving on from GOP dreams of cutting welfare and fully rolling back the Affordable Care Act.
The Kentucky Republican on Thursday broke with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., on the approach to paring back spending on programs like Medicaid and food stamps. In an interview with NPR, McConnell said he is "not interested" in using Senate budget rules to allow Republicans to cut entitlements without consultation with Democrats.
"I think entitlement changes, to be sustained, almost always have to be bipartisan," McConnell said. "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."
McConnell said he wants to spend much of next year focused on issues on which Republicans can work with at least some Democrats in the Senate.
"This has not been a very bipartisan year," McConnell said. "I hope in the new year, we're going to pivot here and become more cooperative."
Republicans spent most of the year struggling, and failing, to follow through on promises to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Democrats refused to work with Republicans while they were trying to dismantle President Barack Obama's signature domestic achievement, and McConnell hopes that next year will be different.
"Well, we obviously were unable to completely repeal and replace with a 52-48 Senate," McConnell said. "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."
McConnell is referring to the political reality that the odds for legislation with only GOP support become longer in January when Sen.-elect Doug Jones, a Democrat from Alabama, takes office.
Republican demands to gut the ACA also declined after Congress effectively eliminated the individual mandate by zeroing out the tax penalty in Obamacare as part of the tax bill approved this week. McConnell hopes to focus instead on stabilizing the insurance marketplaces to keep premiums from skyrocketing in the early months of 2018, a promise he made to moderate Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine to get her support for the tax bill.
"I think the repeal of the individual mandate takes the heart out of Obamacare," McConnell said. "We want to steady the insurance markets if we can ... and I think we'll probably be addressing that part of health care sometime next year."
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina immediately pushed back on McConnell's comments. "To those who believe — including Senate Republican leadership — that in 2018 there will not be another effort to Repeal and Replace Obamacare — you are sadly mistaken," Graham said in a statement and on Twitter.
After the major push to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act over the summer, Graham joined with Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., to promote a bill that would deconstruct the programs that make up the ACA and hand the funds over to the states to run their own programs. It would have gotten rid of the law's subsidies that help low-income consumers purchase insurance and the expansion of Medicaid that it allowed.
McConnell also plans to spend much of the year persuading skeptical voters to embrace the GOP tax overhaul. Recent polls have shown that a majority of voters expect to pay more under the tax bill, a perception McConnell hopes to disprove in the coming months.
"I do think the coverage has been overwhelmingly negative, and it certainly has an impact on it," McConnell said. "You take a family of four making $73,000 a year [that] will save about $2000. Now, to lot of people inside the Beltway that doesn't sound like a lot of money, but to that family, that's a 58 percent reduction in their tax bill."
McConnell also expects bipartisan work will continue in the Senate probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. McConnell said he hopes the investigation will conclude in time to give voters confidence in the security of the elections process ahead of the midterm election in November.
"I'm looking forward to a recommendation from them, and I'm hoping that it will be a bipartisan recommendation," McConnell said. "Because if it breaks into pure partisanship, no one's going to pay any attention to it."
He also rejected the notion that President Trump is preparing to fire special counsel Robert Mueller. "The only people that talk about that are the Democrats," McConnell said. "But I don't hear anybody at the White House or any Republicans, and certainly not in the Senate, calling for Mueller to be fired."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has a wish for 2018 - bipartisanship. He says it's the only way forward. NPR congressional reporter Susan Davis and Kelsey Snell spoke with McConnell today about everything from immigration and infrastructure to the Russia investigation. The Republican leader acknowledges it will be difficult for the parties to work together heading toward midterm elections, but he says he's still hopeful even if that means changing House Speaker Paul Ryan's plans to cut entitlement spending. Here's part of Susan and Kelsey's conversation with Mitch McConnell.
MITCH MCCONNELL: This has not been a very bipartisan year (laughter). I hope in the new year we're going to pivot here and become more cooperative. Almost every other issue you can think of including immigration can't be done in one party only. The president's actually incentivized us by putting a time limit on the DACA program to come forward and see what we can agree to for not only a permanent change on that but also some other items as well. And there are constructive bipartisan discussions going on already. I put together a group with Senator Grassley, Senator Durbin and others to address that issue. And we have until March to do that, and I'm confident we will.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Do you share the speaker's enthusiasm for trying to do entitlement reform, specifically welfare reform, next year?
MCCONNELL: It's hard for me to envision frankly being able to do any kind of entitlement changes if we can't do it on a bipartisan basis.
KEITH: You could use reconciliation again.
MCCONNELL: We could, but I think entitlement changes to be sustained almost always have to be bipartisan. And I don't think 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.
KEITH: So what does that mean if you're less interested in looking at that - maybe infrastructure other more bipartisan things?
MCCONNELL: Yeah, I think infrastructure's a big item. You mentioned immigration. We obviously have to address that. I'm pretty excited - actually kind of a dull topic to most people, but I'm pretty excited about a bipartisan revisitation of Dodd-Frank that came out of the banking committee.
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Not on that list was health care, and yesterday the president said that the tax bill effectively repealed Obamacare by zeroing out the mandate. Does that mean that you guys are fully moving on now from any plans to dismantle the ACA?
MCCONNELL: I think the repeal of the individual mandate takes the heart out of Obamacare. We want to steady the insurance markets if we can, and I think we'll probably be addressing that part of health care sometime next year.
SNELL: But the rest of it is not on your agenda or not on your...
MCCONNELL: Well, 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.
KEITH: The Senate Intelligence Committee is obviously continuing their Russia investigation. Regardless of how that ends, do you think that Congress needs to do something or anything next year in an election year to assure the American people that Russia or any country is not messing with their election?
MCCONNELL: Well, of course. And from the Senate's point of view, what we're taking a look at is what did happen. And what do we need to do? Your question, what do we need to do to make it less likely that happens in the future - I'm looking forward to a recommendation from them, and I'm hoping that it will be a bipartisan recommendation because if it breaks into pure partisanship, nobody's going to pay any attention to it.
KEITH: Would you like to see them conclude soon to give you time to figure out what those are?
MCCONNELL: I'd like to see them conclude when they get through (laughter).
KEITH: Are you confident President Trump's not going to fire Robert Mueller?
MCCONNELL: The only people that talk about that are the Democrats. I must say, I thought it was not great judgment for the special counsel to hire people who were donors to Hillary Clinton. But I don't hear anybody at the White House or any Republicans and, you know, certainly not in the Senate calling for Mueller to be fired. It strikes to me that's sort of a Democratic effort to protect him from something he doesn't need to be protected from.
MARTIN: That was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaking today with NPR's Susan Davis and Kelsey Snell. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.