All of Washington was scrambling to put the pieces of a deal in place to reopen the federal government, avert a federal debt default and deliver Republicans from the political disaster that had been haunting them for two weeks.
After the House failed, it was up to the Senate to broker a solution to the problem. So over the final 24 hours of the drama, McConnell, perhaps the most accomplished congressional dealmaker of his time, scrambled to pick up the pieces.
Thursday, he settled on an extended football metaphor to describe his predicament: He was a backup quarterback thrust into the game after the starter got knocked out with a concussion, and he was backed up against his own end zone with little protection.
“I felt like I was on the two-yard line, I had a pretty weak offensive line, and the best I could hope for was to try to punt,” McConnell said.
For the fourth time in less than three years, McConnell has emerged as the key Republican in deals with Democrats over fiscal matters. He’s now negotiated two tax deals and two debt-limit measures that averted potential financial meltdowns.
The latest effort defied the skeptics who asserted that McConnell’s political problems at home in Kentucky during a reelection campaign would sideline him. From his right, he faces a GOP primary challenger who accuses him of selling out conservative principles in his bipartisan deals; on his left is a fresh-faced Democratic challenger who depicts McConnell as part of the “disease of dysfunction” in Washington.
McConnell’s muted involvement in the early rounds of the government shutdown fight lent some credence to the theories.
But McConnell swears he is not running from his role as the indispensable Washington Republican and, in fact, plans to make it the hallmark of both his primary and general election campaign next year. “When the country’s in crisis and when a bipartisan agreement is needed, I’ve demonstrated on no fewer than four occasions that I can step into the breach and get an outcome that’s good for the country,” he said.
It will be a a tricky line to walk. In his primary fight against a first-time candidate, Matt Bevin, McConnell says he is going to trumpet some of those deals.
In 2011, the GOP leader and Vice President Biden finalized a pact that lifted the debt ceiling but was also accompanied by a complex set of more than $2 trillion in spending cuts. Then last New Year’s Eve, McConnell and Biden signed a deal that permanently extended the Bush-era tax cuts for more than 98 percent of workers and granted a permanent estate tax exemption up to $5 million.
“With the $5 million estate tax exemption, virtually every family farm and small business in my state can be gotten down to the next generation,” he said.