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Where is McConnell's sense of leadership?

By Fred Hiatt
Monday, February 1, 2010; A17

"As I have said many times before, the best way to address the crisis is the Conrad-Gregg proposal."

-- Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell

No single vote by any single senator could possibly illustrate everything that is wrong with Washington today. No single vote could embody the full cynicism and cowardice of our political elite at its worst, or explain by itself why problems do not get solved.

But here's one that comes close.

For a long time it's been clear that, unless the government changes course, the nation will accumulate so much debt that prosperity will decline, future generations will suffer and America will forfeit its role as a global leader.

It's also been clear that both spending and revenue have to be adjusted -- entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security reined in, taxes raised.

Politicians don't like to do either. In particular, Democrats can't support entitlement reform without angering their base and giving up a club with which they like to beat Republicans. Republicans can't raise taxes without angering their base and giving up a club to beat Democrats.

A possible solution, proposed by Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), chairman and ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, respectively, came before the Senate last week: a bipartisan commission that would craft fiscal reforms that Congress would then have to vote on as a package -- yes or no, but no picking it to pieces.

Principled people can oppose this idea (as an abdication of congressional responsibility) or support it (as a necessary evil given Congress's inability to act).

But here's the thing: There's been no question about Mitch McConnell's position of ardent, unwavering support. Last spring he needled President Obama for not backing it. He endorsed it numerous times.

Here, for example, is what McConnell had to say last May:

"We must address the issue of entitlement spending now before it is too late. As I have said many times before, the best way to address the crisis is the Conrad-Gregg proposal, which would provide an expedited pathway for fixing these profound long-term challenges. This plan would force us to get debt and spending under control. It deserves support from both sides of the aisle."

As I have said many times before, the best way to address the crisis is the Conrad-Gregg proposal.

And then, last Tuesday, he voted against it.

What could have changed since May? When I asked, through a spokesman, the senator sent this response: "If people were serious about getting the debt under control, they wouldn't have supported the President's budget which doubles the debt in five years and triples it in ten. Or $2.5 trillion in health spending, or a trillion in stimulus spending. Our problems are not a result of taxing too little, but of spending too much."

But didn't McConnell consider spending the culprit last May, too? Isn't rising debt an argument for the commission?

It's impossible to avoid the conclusion that the only thing that changed since May is the political usefulness of the proposal to McConnell's partisan goals. He was happy to claim fiscal responsibility while beating up Obama for fiscal recklessness. But when Obama endorsed the idea, as he did on the Saturday before the vote -- and when the commission actually, against all odds, had the wisp of a chance of winning the needed 60 Senate votes -- McConnell bailed.

He was hardly the only cynical player. As Mike Allen of Politico pointed out after the vote, a half-dozen Republicans who had co-sponsored the measure voted against it -- including, sadly, former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).

Obama, too, was hardly a profile in courage. He endorsed the commission belatedly, to appease Senate fiscal hawks whose votes he would need to increase the debt limit once their commission went down to defeat. Key aides had been arguing against the commission for much of the fall, and the president made no effort as far as I know to twist arms.

Even so, the commission attracted 53 votes. If McConnell had rallied his backsliding colleagues, and joined them, it would have passed.

And McConnell has the word leader before his name. There was a time when that word suggested a responsibility -- not always, maybe not even most of the time, but sometimes, on issues of true national importance -- to put public interest ahead of partisan consideration. For McConnell, evidently that's not what the word means anymore.

As I have said many times before, the best way to address the crisis is the Conrad-Gregg proposal. . . . It deserves support from both sides of the aisle.

fredhiatt@washpost.com

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