Republicans Turn to Dealmaker McConnell to Forge Compromise on Debt Limit

Photographer: Harry Hamburg/AP

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., returns to his office following a vote on Capitol Hill , July 31, 2011. Close

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., returns to his office following a vote... Read More

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Photographer: Harry Hamburg/AP

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., returns to his office following a vote on Capitol Hill , July 31, 2011.

While Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell stayed out of the spotlight during much of the negotiations over the U.S. debt limit, the deal that’s headed for approval by Congress today has his fingerprints all over it.

Those who have worked with McConnell say that is typical of the lawmaker from Kentucky, a tight-lipped veteran of 26 years in the Senate who says little in public while wielding broad power behind closed doors.

He “tends to be underestimated by the press, because they don’t see him doing things,” said former Senator Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican and longtime ally. “He’s not at the microphones all the time, so they underestimate his capacity to do things. And he’s the last person in the Senate you want to underestimate.”

The deficit-reduction deal that is set for a Senate vote today is largely a product of direct negotiations among McConnell, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, as well as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

The compromise plan, which would cut at least $2.1 trillion from the budget over 10 years as part of a deal to raise the debt limit, was approved yesterday in the House.

In the Shadows

McConnell, 69, largely stayed in the shadows, while earlier talks between Obama and Boehner failed. He kept a low profile when Boehner then tried to assemble the votes to pass his own deficit-reduction plan, which cleared the House on a party-line vote before being killed in the Senate. Reid’s competing plan was quickly defeated.

Then, just three days before a threatened default, McConnell said he had reopened negotiations with Obama.

“We’re going to get an agreement in the very near future,” he said at a July 30 news conference with Boehner.

McConnell played a pivotal role in shaping the final outcome, determining weeks ago that a grand bargain between the parties could be elusive and pushing for an approach that would avert a default under any circumstances.

After weeks of talks with the White House that focused largely on “low-hanging fruit” -- more than $1 trillion in cuts both parties could agree to -- McConnell decided during a July 11 meeting between congressional leaders and Obama that negotiations for a larger package were futile, said a Republican aide familiar with the negotiations.

That is because McConnell found out that the White House wanted only $2 billion of the cuts to occur in the next fiscal year, meaning deep reductions wouldn’t take place for years, the aide said.

Political Protection

The next day, McConnell called all Senate Republicans to the Capitol’s Strom Thurmond room to discuss what he said might be the only way to avert default: allowing Obama to unilaterally raise the debt limit by $2.5 trillion in three stages before the end of his term, yet without Republicans having to support it.

He told the group it was his job as their leader to protect them politically, said a person who was in the room. He said that while he also preferred a comprehensive debt deal, that was unlikely. And a default might spark a backlash against Republicans that could help Obama escape blame for the economy in next year’s elections, the person said.

Straight talk is a hallmark of McConnell’s style, said Michael Franc, vice president for government studies at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based research group that promotes free markets.

“He’s been very calculated about when he injects himself into the narrative and when he takes a lead role,” Franc said. “His monotone never distracts from the fact that he’s very clear where he stands.”

Calming the Markets

It wasn’t the first time McConnell’s pragmatism and willingness to get a deal has taken hold, even if it has meant alienating some Republicans.

In September 2008, after the financial-bailout legislation failed in the House and sent financial markets reeling, McConnell worked with Reid, a Nevada Democrat, to reassure the markets with pronouncements that the measure would clear Congress. The two then worked on a package that included tax breaks and other unrelated provisions some senators wanted, such as disaster aid and funding for rural schools, to win passage.

Last December, McConnell worked with Obama to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for two years, agreeing to measures that the president had sought, including a temporary cut in the payroll tax and the extension of unemployment benefits.

Kentucky Politics

McConnell also uses his tactical skills in party dealings in his home state. He has interviewed candidates for local posts, raised funds for statewide office seekers, and in 1999 helped engineer a Republican takeover of the Kentucky state Senate when two Democrats switched their party affiliation to Republican.

One of those one-time Democrats, Kentucky Senator Dan Seum, said after he told a state Republican official that the Democratic Party had become too liberal for him, McConnell phoned him next. The two discussed Seum’s political philosophy and his desire to keep his seniority if he switched, Seum said. McConnell later arranged a meeting between Seum and other Republican senators in the living room of McConnell’s Louisville home to help close the deal.

“He was the coordinator,” Seum said of McConnell’s role in helping to give Republicans control of the Kentucky Senate. “He was very helpful in paving the way.”

Banning Earmarks

McConnell has long utilized earmarks -- funds that lawmakers insert in spending bills for pet projects -- to benefit Kentucky. He resisted the push by some Republican senators to ban the practice, yet relented after last November’s elections when House Republican leaders and many Senate Republicans wanted to bring an end to earmarks to underscore the party’s push for budget cuts.

McConnell, who was stricken with polio when he was 2 while his family lived in Alabama and didn’t walk until the age of 4, is no back-slapping politician. He is known less for his warmth than for relentlessly staying “on message” and rarely showing emotion.

“He is a supremely disciplined individual and I think part of this comes from beating polio,” said Al Cross, a longtime political reporter for the Courier-Journal who is now a University of Kentucky professor. “He developed then the kind of discipline that we see in him today.”

That discipline, coupled with McConnell’s handling of the debt-ceiling issue, may help cement his likely bid to become Senate majority leader should Republicans take control of the chamber in the 2012 elections.

McConnell is credited with helping Republicans avoid being labeled obstructionists.

His hunt for the debt agreement heads off the threat of default that could hurt Republican prospects, said Jennifer Duffy, Senate editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

“With his demeanor of calm stewardship, and by helping House Republicans come up with something they can support, he’s helped the party,” she said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Brian Faler in Washington at bfaler@bloomberg.net; Laura Litvan in Washington at llitvan@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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