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Rick Scott gets dressed down by McConnell — right after he walks away

On March 1, Sen. Mitch McConnell rebuked Sen. Rick Scott's bill that the minority leader says will raise taxes and cut Medicare aid. (Video: The Washington Post)

Tuesday was not a good day for Sen. Rick Scott and his proposed agenda for the Republican Party. Fortunately for him, he ducked out before things got ugly.

Almost precisely as Scott (R-Fla.) departed the GOP leadership’s news conference early, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was asked to address Scott’s agenda, which caused a stir last week because it proposed a new income tax on half of Americans.

McConnell used the opportunity to remind us — as well as Scott — who is in charge. But even that kind of undersells things.

“Senator Scott is behind me, and he can address the issue of his particular measure,” McConnell said, apparently unaware that Scott had cut out in the nick of time. “If we’re fortunate enough to have the majority next year, I’ll be the majority leader. I’ll decide in consultation with my members what to put on the floor.”

Scott departed immediately after he was the last to deliver a statement and, conveniently, right before reporters had the chance to ask questions. And it’s pretty evident why; everyone knew this would come up in party leaders’ first joint news conference since Scott proposed his agenda last week. He didn’t need to be pictured in the background taking his medicine so publicly.

McConnell continued: “Now let me tell you what will not be part of our agenda: We will not have as part of my agenda a bill that raises taxes on half the American people and sunsets Social Security and Medicare within five years. That will not be part of the Republican Senate majority agenda.”

The tax part is one thing. This much we knew made Republicans extremely uncomfortable, given this is the party in which you very recently couldn’t support anything that could even be construed as a tax increase.

But McConnell’s decision to invoke the other idea — the potential sunsetting of Medicare and Social Security after five years — might actually land with a little more oomph.

This didn’t get nearly as much attention as the tax proposal last week, perhaps because Scott’s agenda was less direct on this point. A couple of left-leaning outlets noted that Scott’s agenda said, “All federal legislation sunsets in 5 years” and would have to be voted upon again. They noted that this could easily be read to include existing federal entitlement legislation. (This contrasts with Scott’s agenda explicitly acknowledging that the new income tax would pertain to “over half of Americans.”)

Despite the fact that this reading of Scott’s agenda hadn’t really caught on, though, McConnell clearly wants no part of the idea that Republicans favor doing anything that could even conceivably mess with people’s entitlements. That’s probably because he knows how potent even a whiff of that has proved politically over the past 30 years. There was Newt Gingrich and Medicare, privatizing Social Security, the various Paul Ryan-involved reform efforts, and even the various (often misleading) attacks on these issues in the Obama years.

McConnell’s comments were characteristically deft and carried plenty of plausible deniability that he intended to put Scott in his place. Scott, the head of Republican Senate campaign efforts, tried to claim that a new income tax on half of Americans somehow wouldn’t actually be a tax increase. Whether his sunset idea would include Social Security and Medicare isn’t totally clear. (Does it mean all new legislation? Or would Congress literally have to repass every law on the books from nearly 250 years of American government? That seems impractical.) McConnell can claim he’s merely addressing what he does and doesn’t support, regardless of what Scott directly proposed.

But there is plenty of reporting on the tensions between the two, as well as reporting that Donald Trump wants Scott to challenge McConnell for the party’s Senate leadership. And Scott most certainly proposed a new tax on half of Americans.

At the very least, Scott has created a headache for McConnell, who has steadfastly declined to lay out an agenda for a very specific reason: He doesn’t feel the need to get bogged down in the meddlesome details, with Democrats already headed for significant losses in 2022. And he surely doesn’t need the guy who is supposed to lead his party’s campaign effort, of all people, to give Democrats any quarter in attaching these ideas to the party’s candidates.

The subtext of McConnell’s message to Scott seemed to be, “Just walk away.” He just might have preferred the figurative version to the literal one.