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Feud between McConnell and Scott boils as Biden applies heat

Florida senator announces new bill to protect Medicare and Social Security after president in Tampa attacks his call for all laws to ‘sunset’

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., right, conduct a news conference on Aug. 2, 2022.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., right, conduct a news conference on Aug. 2, 2022. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Corrected Feb. 13 | The feud between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Florida Sen. Rick Scott isn’t exactly new, but it boiled hotter this week as President Joe Biden amplified his use of Scott as a campaign-style foil.

“The very idea the senator from Florida wants to put Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block every five years I find to be somewhat outrageous, so outrageous that you might not even believe it,” Biden said Thursday in Tampa, Fla.

McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, has tried  to distance other congressional Republicans from the “Rescue America Plan” Scott released during the 2022 midterm elections, especially its provision that says “all federal legislation sunsets in 5 years” and should be passed by Congress again if it “is worth keeping.”

At an event in Florida on Friday, Scott unveiled new legislation designed to demonstrate that he does not want to cut Medicare or Social Security.

“If it is determined that any legislation will cause a cut or reduction in Medicare or Social Security, this rule will force two thirds of Congress to vote to approve it, making it much more difficult for Congress to make cuts or reduce benefits,” Scott said in a statement.

The bill also includes at least one provision sure to be unpalatable to Democrats: a proposal to repeal the funding for additional IRS personnel that were funded in last year’s reconciliation bill.

Biden’s team on Thursday had distributed copies of Scott’s 2022 plan in Tampa, with their own commentary that entitlements would be on the chopping block. It echoed comments the president made to Republican jeers during the State of the Union speech on Tuesday, and Scott has said Biden is lying about the plan. But McConnell seemed to agree with the Democratic president.

“It’s clearly the Rick Scott plan, it is not the Republican plan,” McConnell said in a Thursday interview with Terry Miners, a prominent radio host in the leader’s hometown of Louisville. “I think it will be a challenge for him to deal with this in his own reelection in Florida, a state with more elderly people than any other state in America.”

It’s unusual for McConnell to be so critical of a member of his own conference, especially one up for reelection in a closely divided Senate, but Scott launched an ill-fated challenge to the Kentuckian’s long-held leadership perch at the end of last year.

President Joe Biden discusses what he sees as threats to Social Security and Medicare during an appearance at the University of Tampa in Florida on Feb. 9. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Recently, Scott has been fundraising off the fact he lost a seat on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. The GOP lost seats on committees after the party lost one Senate seat in Pennsylvania in November, when Scott was chairman of the senatorial campaign committee.  The Commerce panel’s significance to Florida includes its oversight of NASA, which is currently led by Administrator Bill Nelson, a former senator who was unseated by Scott in 2018.

“This is what happens when you challenge leadership in Washington,” Scott wrote Friday in one of his many fundraising emails. “It’s the kind of vintage Washington insider move you find here in the swamp.  But that won’t stop me from pushing Senate Republican leaders to act like Republicans.” 

“Spats are common but there are strong incentives to kiss and make up,” Ross Baker, a distinguished professor at Rutgers who has long studied relationships in the Senate, said in an email. “McConnell saw his chances for a majority evaporate when Scott followed Trump’s lead in backing celebrity challengers in the 2022 GOP primaries and [saw] almost all of them crash and burn.”

Top aides and advisers to McConnell and Scott have sparred publicly as well, including in Twitter exchanges on Thursday night, and there is no sign that the disdain between the two camps is letting up.

Intraparty feuds unusual

It’s not often that senators in the same party (and their associated political operatives) express such disdain for a colleague openly. Sometimes senators from the same state develop rivalries. Baker noted the notorious friction between the late Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg and his fellow New Jersey Democrat Bob Torricelli, which in 2000 led to Torricelli threatening in a party caucus to cut off a part of the senior senator’s anatomy.

But it’s even more rare to see open feuding between a Senate leader and a member of their own party. McConnell has sparred over the years with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, including when Cruz took to the Senate floor and accused McConnell of lying in 2015.

Donald A. Ritchie, the historian emeritus of the Senate, pointed to examples as far back as Lyndon B. Johnson’s sparring with fellow Texas Democrat Ralph Yarborough.

He also mentioned Democratic Leader Alben Barkley of Kentucky’s notoriously frosty relationship with Kenneth McKellar, D-Tenn., which Ritchie explained involved the two senior senators sitting next to each other on the floor with McKellar refusing to speak.

According to the Historical Office account, McKellar had been particularly enraged that Barkley sent the sergeant-at-arms to “arrest” him at his D.C. residence at the Mayflower Hotel in 1942, as part of the effort to establish a quorum and break a filibuster of civil rights legislation, which included a ban on poll taxes.

“Barkley got his quorum, but McKellar got even,” the Historical Office report said. “He later convinced President Franklin Roosevelt not to even consider Barkley’s desire for a seat on the Supreme Court. Such a nomination, he promised, would never receive Senate approval.”

The spelling of Ralph Yarborough’s name is corrected in this report.

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