Key to those hopes is McConnell (R-Ky.), whose dealmaking prowess over the past two years was essential to the negotiations that led to the fiscal cliff, and may now be equally critical in finding a solution to the austerity crisis.
So far, the Senate minority leader has remained in the shadows. That has led some lawmakers to wonder if he will play the dealmaker this time. Democrats question whether McConnell’s 2014 reelection bid will impede his ability to support a deal.
A no-small-talk senator who once boasted of his mastery of the “unexpressed thought,” McConnell accuses Obama of pursuing a political victory over Republicans rather than searching for a policy that can win approval in the Democratic-controlled Senate and Republican-dominated House.
“If the president has another suggestion, we’ll be happy to take a look at it,” McConnell said in a brief interview Friday.
McConnell, a five-term incumbent, has been the key player in two major crisis-ending deals between the White House and congressional Republicans. First there was the December 2010 compromise to extend all of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts for an additional two years, followed by the complicated agreement in August 2011 to increase the Treasury’s borrowing authority.
Those deals set a Jan. 1, 2013 deadline for reaching a broad debt agreement, or else the tax cuts would expire and automatic spending cuts worth more than $500 billion a year would kick in. That deadline, now called the fiscal cliff, is widely believed capable of causing another recession.
Part of McConnell’s diminished role this time was by design, as the president and the speaker decided to pursue talks on their own. Now some Republicans are wondering if it’s time to return to the pattern of 2010 and 2011, which were classic backroom maneuvers involving the old Senate hands of McConnell, Vice President Biden and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).
“There’s no one better around here at coming up with solutions to complicated problems. He’s an expert at coming up with creative ways out of the binds we find ourselves in,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who is becoming McConnell’s top deputy as minority whip.
Senior GOP aides said that a key moment in the cliff negotiations came on Nov. 29, when the White House sent Biden to a new Costco store in Northeast Washington to tout Obama’s plan to extend tax cuts only for income up to $250,000. If the White House truly wanted a compromise, Biden would be in McConnell’s office or on the phone with the GOP leader, according to McConnell’s allies.