At the end of last week, with the country barreling toward financial default and the governing apparatus at a loss about how to respond, the crisis seemed to demand the involvement of someone with the personal gravitas, political acumen and institutional leverage to move the process toward a final deal. The moment called out for Mitch McConnell.
On Saturday, after all the partisan bills were doomed and dismissed, the Senate minority leader took charge of the process, reaching out to the White House to demand that President Obama get personally involved. Any debt-ceiling deal before the Tuesday default deadline, McConnell said, would require direct engagement with the president — and late Saturday, the approach seemed the last, best hope.
“In the category of getting serious, I have spoken to both the president and the vice president within the last hour,” McConnell (R-Ky.) said. “We are now fully engaged, the speaker and I, with the one person in America out of 307 million people who can sign a bill into law.”
After returning to the Senate from a White House meeting, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) accused McConnell of not negotiating in “good faith” and holding “meaningless press conferences” in which he claims to be engaged. Reid said other members of the Republican Conference were truly talking and McConnell was just stalling.
“I guess talking is a step in the right direction, but that’s about it,” Reid said.
A smiling McConnell interrupted Reid to inform him that he had just “cut short a conversation with the vice president” to come to the Senate floor for an “important vote” on a quorum — essentially an attendance-taking vote — that Reid had called.
It may have been predictable that it would come to this. McConnell’s fingerprints are on every big bipartisan deal and every key spending bill to emerge from the Congress in recent years. He secretly negotiated, with Vice President Biden, the deal to extend the George W. Bush-era tax cuts last December. And three years ago, in an environment eerily similar to the current stalemate, it was McConnell who helped rescue a bailout package for the financial services industry from a humiliating defeat on the House floor.
In recent days, McConnell struck a notably low profile as House Republicans struggled to pass a debt-ceiling bill. His reticence, in part, was designed to give House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) the room he needed to try to pass his own proposal in the House, a plan that would have been undermined if House Republicans thought that Boehner’s legislation was going to be modified in the Senate with McConnell’s help. But even more than his desire to help Boehner, McConnell’s stony silence was the result of his irritation with Obama for scuttling what he thought was a deal last week.
According to Democrats and Republicans, McConnell told Obama a week ago that congressional leaders should strike the deal on their own; they had done it before. And so for two days they huddled in the Capitol, getting close to a broad deal, until McConnell learned from Reid that Obama had nixed the plan because it did not ensure a debt-ceiling extension into 2013. That remained a key sticking point late Saturday, and McConnell was no longer silent.
As the Senate opened for another weekend session Saturday, McConnell accused Obama of undermining congressional leaders and demanded that the White House send an emissary to new talks. “We can’t do it by ourselves,” he said. “Let’s get to talking to the administration again in the hopes that we can come together behind something that can pass both the Senate and the House and be signed into law before Tuesday.”
McConnell and Boehner offered reassurances that there would be no default.
“I am confident and optimistic we’re going to get an agreement,” McConnell said, standing next to Boehner, who added: “Despite our differences, we’re dealing with reasonable, responsible people who want this crisis to end as quickly as possible.”
This is not the first time McConnell has been cast in the role of the “reasonable, responsible” one in the face of financial calamity.
In late September 2008, during the Wall Street crisis, Boehner, then minority leader, rallied only a third of his conference behind the proposed $700 billion bailout. As the vote failed on a Monday afternoon, the Dow Jones industrial average dropped nearly 778 points, the largest single-day drop ever.
Quietly, over the next 24 hours, McConnell engaged Reid in secret talks. Late Tuesday, after the Senate had been dormant for hours and most staff members had gone home, Reid and McConnell announced they would attach a set of popular tax breaks to the bailout fund, leading to passage of the revised legislation.
“This is one of the finer moments in the Senate. We have come together on a bipartisan basis and structured a way forward on an important rescue package for our country,” McConnell said that night.
The hope now is that somehow they can find a way forward on the debt ceiling before Tuesday night. “Both are institutionalists and have a lot of respect for the Senate,” said Jim Manley, a former aide to Reid. “They rarely agree, but they go out of their way not to blindside one another.”
That lingering adherence to institutional courtesy, so absent in the House last week, may help rescue the deal in the Senate, in part because McConnell so believes in the chamber’s role.
As a Senate intern in summer 1963, McConnell watched the March on Washington from the Capitol’s west front. In law school at the University of Kentucky, he wrote a thesis on the Senate’s judicial confirmation process.
After his election in 1984, he cut a slow and steady path toward less glamorous assignments designed to show hard work, earning him chits with his colleagues. He served as the top Republican on the ethics and rules committees, not coveted positions, and twice ran the GOP’s campaign committee. All the while he honed his skills as a master tactician of Senate parliamentary maneuvers.
His sole ambition has been to be Senate majority leader. In the fall of 2006, as Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) was retiring and McConnell was moving into the top job, Republicans suffered a devastating six-seat defeat. Instead, McConnell became minority leader, and even after the GOP wave of 2010, he came up four seats short.
McConnell’s leadership style has been notoriously subdued. He is rarely off-message. He peppers his comments with phrases such as “at the risk of being redundant” when he repeats his mantra of the moment. At a recent breakfast briefing with reporters, he bragged that he was the master of “the unexpressed thought.”
Three weeks ago, McConnell thought he had found a way out of the debt crisis, one that offered, he thought, a palatable political outcome for Republicans. His plan would have allowed the president to lift the debt limit on his own three times between next month and 2013, with Congress having the power to reject that only if a two-thirds majority voted to block the move. It would allow every Republican to vote against the unpopular debt-ceiling increase, placing the political onus completely on Obama and Democrats.
But what some saw as a political masterstroke others considered traitorous. Some House GOP freshmen called it the “Pontius Pilate plan” because it did not guarantee any spending cuts. McConnell’s name became so toxic among House Republicans that when GOP aides unveiled Boehner’s plan Monday, they declined to invoke the Senate leader’s name even as they made clear they were including portions of the plan that he had laid out.
Whatever deal is reached to raise the debt ceiling, McConnell’s prints will be all over it, even if not everyone can see them.
“With Reid and McConnell at the helm, they can still outsmart the newer members,” Manley said.