By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post staff writer
Tuesday, April 20, 2010; 4:45 PM
A meeting between Wall Street executives and Republican leaders emboldened Democrats in the past week to aggressively attack one of their chief antagonists: Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)
Since the news surfaced that McConnell and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) met with financial chiefs in New York this month, on the eve of the Senate debate on a regulatory reform bill, Democrats have suggested Republicans are organizing against the legislation to curry favor and campaign donations from Wall Street, as Cornyn is the head of the Senate Republican campaign arm. Both men have denied that charge, and McConnell has defended the meeting as simply discussing legislation with people on wall street.
Though on Monday he appeared to soften in his opposition to the regulatory overhaul, Democrats have used the meeting specifically to take on McConnell. The Democratic National Committee has runs ads attacking him, Democratic lawmakers have slammed him in speeches on the Senate floor and President Obama has repeatedly scolded him in recent speeches.
"Now, the Senate Republican leader, he paid a visit to Wall Street a week or two ago. He took along the chairman of their campaign committee," Obama said at a speech in Los Angeles on Monday night. "He met with some of the movers and shakers up there. I don't know exactly what was discussed. All I can tell you is when he came back, he promptly announced he would oppose the financial regulatory reform. He would oppose it. Shocking. And once again, he's threatening to tie up the Senate with a filibuster to try to block progress."
McConnell, in a speech Monday, criticized "people [who] come down to scream and yell about my suggestions and my motives" and called on Democrats to "skip the character attacks on anyone who dares to point out flaws with the bill."
McConnell has said that a $50 billion fund that the financial firms would pay into for liquidating bankrupt firms constitutes a "bailout fund," even though it would not be funded by the federal government as the 2008 rescue of Wall Street firms was. Obama has called that assertion "cynical and deceptive," but administration officials have signaled they would support stripping the fund from the legislation.
Several Republicans have signaled they might back the final version of the legislation, but so far McConnell has organized all 41 Republicans against the bill.
Unified opposition by Republicans, and Democratic frustration with it, has been a theme of the past 15 months on Capitol Hill. In an ad last month -- called "What's Wrong With Washington?" -- the DNC highlighted McConnell's opposition to health-care legislation.
The Kentucky Republican, well-regarded in his party for this strategic acumen, generally revels in being cast as a blocker of key legislation that he opposes. McConnell has long filled one of the walls in his office with editorial cartoons that depict him, and most of them are negative.
A cartoon last year by the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Times Free Press shows two banners on a street corner. On the left is one with a picture of Obama's face and the word "HOPE" written below it. The other shows a scowling McConnell with the word "NOPE" below his face.
Since Obama became president, McConnell has successfully slowed the administration's push to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, blocked numerous executive branch nominees and pushed all 41 GOP senators to oppose the health-care law.
McConnell has said the party in the minority is regularly accused of obstructionism, but the Wall Street meeting has heightened the criticism and put the Republican leader on the defense.
Asked about the meeting in an interview on CNN on Sunday, McConnell defended the session and said he was simply "gathering information" from people on Wall Street about their views on the bill.
Democrats aren't likely to be satisfied with that explanation. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.)'s office declared on Tuesday "it is past time for Senator McConnell to come clean regarding the nature of his closed-door meetings with Wall Street executives."