Mitch McConnell cut deals with the White House to head off steep tax increases for 2013 and to keep the U.S. from defaulting on its debt in 2011.
Don’t look for the Kentucky Republican to play the same role this year, though the fiscal fights ahead in Congress are just as fierce. And that may make it tougher to avert a budgetary crack-up in coming weeks and months.
The Senate’s top Republican is showing signs of abandoning the deal-maker role he’s played with President Barack Obama’s administration, as he faces a Tea-Party-backed primary challenger and a Democratic general-election opponent with national support. He can’t afford to look cozy with Obama.
“McConnell will likely not be front and center during the budget negotiations but rather leave it to other Republican senators to do it,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean.
McConnell’s efforts to ensure his political survival are a pivotal part of Republican efforts to gain control of the Senate. Republicans need a net gain of at least five seats to win the majority in the 100-member chamber, and a loss in Republican-leaning Kentucky would make that goal tougher to reach.
Electoral pressures help explain why McConnell was the only one of the top four leaders in Congress to oppose Obama’s call for military action to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians.
McConnell, 71, lately has been opposed Obama’s nominees to executive posts and has been one of the loudest critics of the Internal Revenue Service for giving extra scrutiny to groups aligned with the Tea Party when they applied for tax-exempt status. The senator said his first move if he were to become majority leader would be to repeal Obama’s 2010 health-care law.
He had strong words for Obama Sept. 10, saying he was “dumbfounded at the ham-handed manner” in which the White house announced its plans for a military strike in Syria.
“There is absolutely no reason to signal to the enemy when and how, and for how long, you plan to strike them — none,” McConnell, who voted for the October 2002 resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq, said on the Senate floor. “You don’t send out a save-the-date card to the enemy.”
McConnell said he would oppose the use-of-force resolution the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed last week because “a vital national security risk is clearly not at play,” adding that “there are just too many unanswered questions about our long-term strategy in Syria.” The Senate has since delayed action on Syria amid signs of a diplomatic breakthrough.
So far, McConnell has been circumspect about backing a specific budget or spending plan this year, topics that will be joined when Congress starts the debt ceiling debate.
“As we move towards the upcoming debates over fiscal and tax policy, Senator McConnell, who in the past has proved constructive, is going to be nowhere to be seen,” said Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat. A hands-off approach wouldn’t “bode well for trying to get work done in the Senate in the fall,” Manley added.
This shift is part of McConnell’s campaign strategy in Kentucky: framing the race as a referendum on Obama, with the senator cast as the president’s chief congressional adversary.
“If the election is about whether you like Mitch McConnell and if you think he’s been in Washington too long, Mitch McConnell is going to lose,” said Nathan Gonzales, political editor for the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington.
McConnell’s recent posture on legislation has been influenced by his efforts “to pick which of those frames this election will be played out in,” Gonzales said.
McConnell didn’t respond to repeated requests for an interview. His camp disputed that the Kentucky senator’s re-election effort was influencing his leadership role.
“Politics are never a factor when Senator McConnell makes leadership decisions in Washington,” said campaign manager Jesse Benton. “He listens to all sides of an argument.”
McConnell is among the Republican incumbents who could become casualties of an intra-party squabble as he seeks a sixth term. A group founded by former South Carolina Republican Senator Jim DeMint announced Sept. 5 that it would spend $340,000 on television ads urging McConnell to find “the courage to lead” and demand that funding for the 2010 health-care law be cut off.
McConnell will face Louisville investor Matt Bevin in the state’s May 20 primary.
For Democrats, McConnell is next year’s high-profile Senate target. The party has been eager to avenge Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle’s 2004 defeat to John Thune, who is now the chamber’s third-ranking Republican leader.
Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill and Montana Senator Jon Tester are among Democrats representing Republican-leaning states who e-mailed supporters urging them to help Secretary of State Alison Grimes, the Democrat seeking McConnell’s seat.
McConnell went on offense during an Aug. 30 Louisville rally, accusing Democrats of casting him and other Republican lawmakers as anti-women.
“What you’re going to see by my opponent obviously is the Barack Obama playbook, to try to divide people with gender-based attacks,” he said, flanked by female supporters from across the state.
Democrats and Bevin have tried to link McConnell to National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brad Dayspring’s comment, made to The Hill newspaper, dismissing Grimes as an “empty dress” who “babbles incoherently” on issues.
Democrats cite McConnell’s opposition to military action in Syria and a July showdown over Obama’s nominees -- in which Arizona Republican John McCain acted as the chief negotiator with Democrats -- as evidence that McConnell isn’t eager to make deals with the other party.
Without congressional action, funding for federal government operations will run out Oct. 1. House Republican leaders are trying to find the votes to pass a stopgap measure to fund the government through mid-December in the new fiscal year by tying the measure to another proposal defunding the health-care law.
While he’s been a vocal critic of the Affordable Care Act and an advocate of curbing federal spending, McConnell has stopped short of linking votes on the two issues.
His campaign released a radio ad this week touting the minority leader as “the No. 1 opponent of Obamacare from the start” and accusing Grimes of being “President Obama’s Kentucky spokesperson for Obamacare.”
Among a team of female supporters that McConnell has assembled is former Republican Representative Anne Northup, who said to cheers from McConnell backers at an Aug. 20 rally in Louisville: “Aren’t we proud that he has been the leader to say Obamacare will not work?”
“From the first day he understood it was a problem, he knew it was wrong and he spoke up,” she said.
McConnell also has been a reliable opponent of Obama’s nominees for executive-branch positions. In July alone, he voted against choices to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; the Labor Department; the Environmental Protection Agency; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Export-Import Bank and the National Labor Relations Board.
His involvement in future legislative battles probably “will all be going on behind the scenes, deep in the corridors of the Capitol building, far from the cameras,” said John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California. “He knows he’s walking around with a big bullseye on his back.”
McCain said his role in negotiating the nominations compromise had been exaggerated and he was in close contact with McConnell, talking with him as many as 10 times a day.
“When someone is facing the challenges that he is -- in both the primary and the general election -- it’s a very difficult challenge, but I think he’s handling his leadership responsibilities extremely well,” McCain said in an interview late last month. “You never want to underestimate him.”
With more than eight months before the primary and more than a year until the general election, McConnell will continue “getting hit on all sides,” Gonzales said. “McConnell is fighting a two-front war -- that can be difficult.”
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