The Washington Post

Congress waits to see if McConnell will join ‘fiscal cliff’ debate

The public collapse of talks between President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has in the past been the signal for Mitch McConnell to step into the spotlight.

For weeks, the effort to avert severe austerity measures has focused on talks between the president and the speaker. Now that those talks have faltered, attention has turned to the Senate in hopes that less acrimonious negotiations there could produce a “fiscal cliff” escape route.

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.

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“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.

The GOP leader does not like dealing with the president, who he feels tries to lecture him and persuade him to change his position, according to McConnell supporters. He prefers Biden, who is known by some in the West Wing as the “McConnell Whisperer” because the vice president sees negotiating as a political horse trading, advisers said.

McConnell and Biden have not had a single meeting or phone call on the cliff issue, aides said.

Many Senate Democrats and White House officials believe that any final pact will at least need the tacit blessing of McConnell. On Friday, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said that while the House remained the highest hurdle to a deal, Senate Republicans would have to support the plan to avoid avoid a filibuster.

“Would Senator McConnell be willing to move a smaller-scale model? Who knows? But we can’t move it on our own,” said Schumer, the No. 3 Democratic leader.

He said that McConnell needed to work with Boehner to get a deal so that Republicans — particularly those who, like McConnell, are up for reelection in 2014 — could support the pact. “I don’t know why he would want to have his members put their necks on the line for a deal that may not pass the House,” Schumer said.

It’s no secret that McConnell’s lifetime goal has been to become Senate majority leader, a dream that began as a Senate intern in the summer of 1963.

His first priority now is winning reelection in 2014, beginning with avoiding defeat by a conservative challenger in a primary.

He has forged an alliance with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), the tea party icon who defeated a McConnell acolyte in the 2010 primary. Initially they were seen as an awkward duo — McConnell winced during Paul’s first Senate speech when he excoriated Kentucky’s greatest political hero, Henry Clay, as a compromiser who did not push to end slavery. But Paul is now an enthusiastic McConnell backer. He introduced McConnell at a tea party rally earlier this year at the Kentucky state Capitol, and McConnell’s reelection effort will be run by Paul’s campaign manager.

McConnell’s supporters contend that he will be untouchable in a primary, with well over $7 million already stockpiled for his 2014 race.

However, the Club for Growth — which has spent tens of millions of dollars in efforts to defeat Senate GOP candidates it deemed insufficiently conservative — has come out against any compromise that raises taxes, even one limited to millionaires.

Kentucky’s liberal bench has grown so thin that some Bluegrass State Democrats are pushing actress and Louisville native Ashley Judd to challenge McConnell. That’s why senior Democratic aides argue that McConnell is most concerned about a primary challenge and will vote against any deal.

Republicans reject that accusation. “I haven’t noticed any constraint,” Cornyn said. Others point to McConnell’s backroom dealing with Reid that led to passage of the Wall Street bailout just five weeks before his 2008 election, which turned into his closest race since first winning in 1984, as an example of his willingness to take tough votes.

Not known for his patience, McConnell weeks ago decided to do what he often does — skip ahead to the last chapter — even as Boehner still reached for a deal with Obama.

According to senators and aides, he told Senate Republicans that Obama had them cornered and taxes would go up on everyone if they did nothing, an outcome that polls showed the public would blame on Republicans. McConnell believed that Republicans would be better positioned to fight for more spending cuts and entitlement reforms in February, when Obama will be forced to seek another increase in the federal debt ceiling.

McConnell suggested he would support Boehner’s “Plan B” to extend tax cuts on all income up to $1 million and allow the tax rate to rise from 35 percent to 39.6 percent above that threshold. When he realized that Boehner was floundering, he ordered Senate Republicans to call their home-state House Republicans to push them to support the speaker.

That would have sent a bill to the Senate, where Reid would have had to make the next move. Now no one is sure how to construct a deal, and whether McConnell will resume his role as the dealmaker.

“Will he pull a rabbit out of his hat? I don’t know, I don’t know,” Cornyn said. “I’d be grateful if he comes up with a way out of this, other than going off the cliff.”

Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.

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