When Christmas rolled around without a deal, a wounded Speaker John A. Boehner on the sidelines and the fiscal cliff looming, Sen. Mitch McConnell stepped into the breach of the legislative mess called the fiscal cliff.
It’s not a role the Kentucky Republican and Senate minority leader necessarily wanted to play. He faces a potential primary challenger next year from the party’s right wing, as well as a general election challenge. High-profile roles on messy deals full of compromises aren’t always popular back home nor among conservative tea party supporters.
But McConnell has been the indispensable deal-maker from the wreckage of two years of on-again, off-again “grand bargain” talks, which repeatedly saw House GOP leaders walk away from the table, unable to corral their own members.
“McConnell often does the hard thing that everyone knows needs to get done, but few have either the know-how or muscle to make happen,” said Ryan Loskarn, chief of staff to Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
Just like last year, when McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., cut the deal on the payroll tax, and during the debt-ceiling fight in 2011, when he helped orchestrate the crisis-postponing endgame, McConnell has managed to forge compromises with relatively minimal grumbling from within his own conference.
This time around, McConnell looked at the long game, securing a strategic advantage for the GOP for the president’s entire second term by making the tax cuts permanent for couples earning up to $450,000 a year. He managed to do it while getting the White House to give up its $250,000 level for rate hikes — a level some Republicans feared they would be forced to accept if the nation dived over the cliff.
The after-midnight Senate vote on New Year’s Day wasn’t pretty, but for many Senate Republicans, the prospect of waking up a day later and bearing the blame for tax hikes on everyone would have been far worse.
McConnell’s decision to break off stalled talks with Reid and reach out to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. proved crucial. He tapped into a decades-long relationship with Biden after Reid effectively threw up his hands, unable to counter McConnell’s weekend proposal.
Biden agreed to use up much of the president’s leverage on taxes in return for locking in tax hikes for the rich now.
And McConnell stayed focused on getting a result while many of his colleagues were making speeches or wringing their hands over what wasn’t in the deal. When the president on New Year’s Eve made a blatantly partisan appearance with middle-class Americans, adding a call for even more tax hikes next year, many Republicans bristled with outrage and warned that Obama’s speech threatened to kill the deal. McConnell remained the picture of restraint.
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