By Tuesday night, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) realized he had run out of luck. House Republicans had failed once again to pass critical legislation out of their chamber, so the Democrats who control the Senate had all the leverage.
McConnell was cornered, “caught in a cul-de-sac,” he said, with the “worst hand” he had ever been dealt.
All of Washington was scrambling to put the pieces of a deal in place to reopen the federal government, avert a federal debt default and deliver Republicans from the political disaster that had been haunting them for two weeks.
After the House failed, it was up to the Senate to broker a solution to the problem. So over the final 24 hours of the drama, McConnell, perhaps the most accomplished congressional dealmaker of his time, scrambled to pick up the pieces.
Thursday, he settled on an extended football metaphor to describe his predicament: He was a backup quarterback thrust into the game after the starter got knocked out with a concussion, and he was backed up against his own end zone with little protection.
“I felt like I was on the two-yard line, I had a pretty weak offensive line, and the best I could hope for was to try to punt,” McConnell said.
For the fourth time in less than three years, McConnell has emerged as the key Republican in deals with Democrats over fiscal matters. He’s now negotiated two tax deals and two debt-limit measures that averted potential financial meltdowns.
The latest effort defied the skeptics who asserted that McConnell’s political problems at home in Kentucky during a reelection campaign would sideline him. From his right, he faces a GOP primary challenger who accuses him of selling out conservative principles in his bipartisan deals; on his left is a fresh-faced Democratic challenger who depicts McConnell as part of the “disease of dysfunction” in Washington.
McConnell’s muted involvement in the early rounds of the government shutdown fight lent some credence to the theories.
But McConnell swears he is not running from his role as the indispensable Washington Republican and, in fact, plans to make it the hallmark of both his primary and general election campaign next year. “When the country’s in crisis and when a bipartisan agreement is needed, I’ve demonstrated on no fewer than four occasions that I can step into the breach and get an outcome that’s good for the country,” he said.
It will be a a tricky line to walk. In his primary fight against a first-time candidate, Matt Bevin, McConnell says he is going to trumpet some of those deals.
In 2011, the GOP leader and Vice President Biden finalized a pact that lifted the debt ceiling but was also accompanied by a complex set of more than $2 trillion in spending cuts. Then last New Year’s Eve, McConnell and Biden signed a deal that permanently extended the Bush-era tax cuts for more than 98 percent of workers and granted a permanent estate tax exemption up to $5 million.
“With the $5 million estate tax exemption, virtually every family farm and small business in my state can be gotten down to the next generation,” he said.
The spending cuts in the 2011 Budget Control Act — also know as the sequester cuts — represent real reductions in government funding that McConnell mentions every chance he gets.
When it came to the negotiations for reopening the government and avoiding default, McConnell’s main goal was to protect his winnings from the two previous deals.
With the government funding stream set to expire Sept. 30, all the senior GOP leaders on Capitol Hill, including House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), wanted to avoid the strategy of shutting down the federal government in an effort to thwart President Obama’s health-care law.
But outside conservative advocacy groups such as Heritage Action had spent the August break scaring Republicans, particularly younger members in the House, into pushing the shutdown strategy. Despite reports that only 20 or 30 House Republicans were willing to shut down the government, the number was far higher — 80 or more — and Boehner’s leadership team got steamrolled in trying to avoid the shutdown.
Even as Senate Republicans privately castigated Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) for meeting with the House renegades and pushing the strategy, they couldn’t steer the effort away from shutdown.
“It certainly wasn’t anybody’s intention to have the shutdown, and hopefully we’ve all learned some important lessons,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), McConnell’s second in command, said.
Still, the ball remained in Boehner’s hands for the first 10 days of the shutdown. Finally, the GOP’s poll numbers cratered just as the deadline for the debt ceiling grew within a week, and the potential for default took over. McConnell began meeting with Republicans such as Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, whom he sent out to discuss options with moderate Democrats.
As bad as his hand was, McConnell thought he could secure a couple of conservative concessions in a deal, such as the repeal of an unpopular tax on medical devices that helps fund the Affordable Care Act.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who led the talks this time and who reveled in having the leverage over his rival, outfoxed McConnell. When the bipartisan group appeared to be gaining momentum, he shut it down and forced the talks into just a negotiation between the two Senate leaders.
When McConnell issued a statement Sunday announcing support for the “bipartisan” Collins plan, Reid summoned the Democrats working on the plan into his office. While still sitting in Reid’s office, a statement under their name was issued saying the Democrats had pulled back.
“Democrats who said they would support certain things disappeared. It would best be described as a pretty weak hand,” McConnell said.
The final deal pretty much gave Reid everything he wanted but set up new fights, in January over government funding and later next year over the next debt-ceiling increase.
“When you’re on the two-yard line and your offensive line is shaky, you’re trying to get a better position on the field,” McConnell said.