The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Conservative plan to defund Obamacare puts McConnell in tough spot

Mitch McConnell is at least two things: A Kentucky senator running for reelection next year, and the leader of the Senate GOP Conference.

It's a combination that makes for same painful dilemmas.

To wit: The spat that has erupted in recent days over a proposal from conservative senators to oppose any budget or continuing resolution bills that spend even a penny funding Obamacare. Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) are urgently coaxing their Republican colleagues to join their cause to derail President Obama's signature health-care overhaul by supporting the plan.

It's worked on some. But others have reacted to the plan with harsh criticism. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) called it a "silly effort." Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) described it as the "dumbest idea" he has ever heard. Some have even pulled support for the plan. And Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) fears it could allow Democrats to win back control of the House.

Their worry is that such a hardline stance could lead to no deal getting done, and a government shutdown ensuing. Under that scenario, Republicans could get a whole lot of blame. And that would be bad news for McConnell, one of his party's most visible leaders.

Another complication for McConnell: Among those supporting Lee's plan is Matt Bevin, the Republican leader's recently launched primary challenger, who on Tuesday morning pressed the senator to jump on board. "Instead of playing political games, it's time to stand up for the people of Kentucky," Bevin said.

McConnell is not a signatory on the letter Lee circulated to win support for his plan. But with high-profile Republicans like Cruz and Rubio touting the proposal, and McConnell's opponent going after him, he's going to face pressure to support it. And that's simply not the kind of noise he needs right now.

In some ways, McConnell has the opposite problem from Cruz. Beloved by the grassroots, Cruz's uncompromising brand of conservatism risks alienating him from the Senate GOP Conference. As leader, McConnell embodies the GOP Conference; but his problem is how conservative Republicans back home view him.

"Senator McConnell will always do what he thinks is right for both Kentucky and the nation," said McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton. "He is a man of principle who doesn't governs based on political whims and never backs down to pressure from special interest."

The spat over defunding Obamacare probably won't be the only tough dilemma McConnell will have to face in the coming months. Now that the threat of a primary challenge has given way to an actual primary challenge, McConnell's day job is more difficult.