McConnell’s Pivot to Economy Was Long in the Works

Posted March 27, 2010 at 11:09am

The decision by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to pick a fight on deficit spending Thursday was months in the planning and forced Democrats into a last-minute economic debate on the eve of the Easter recess.

The decision to make a stand on legislation temporarily extending unemployment benefits was a surprise: The Senate had just completed a marathon voting session on health care that lasted more than 15 hours over two days.

Plus, Republicans took a public relations drubbing weeks earlier when Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) provoked a similar debate over extending unemployment insurance without offsetting the cost.

But according to a senior GOP aide, McConnell for months had been laying the groundwork to pivot onto the economy, and the unemployment insurance issue provided the opening.

McConnell “sees the whole playing field and plans ahead,” the aide said, adding that leadership staff have been “putting plans in place for a long time” to shift into a broader economic fight.

Some Republicans said privately that McConnell could have engaged in the deficit battle earlier this month when Bunning launched his one-man filibuster against an unpaid extension of unemployment insurance.

However, a GOP leadership aide explained that following Sen. Scott Brown’s (R-Mass.) surprise win in January, most Republican strategists believed President Barack Obama and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would move away from comprehensive health care and focus on jobs and the economy.

“We’ve anticipated the transition into a much larger economic argument for quite some time … [and] at that point, we were preparing to get into a much larger economic discussion,” the aide explained.

But when Democrats decided to double down on health care, McConnell kept his Conference focused on that issue in order to avoid a multi-front war with an extremely charismatic president.

Bunning’s quixotic filibuster against an unfunded extension of unemployment insurance disrupted McConnell’s plans. Initially, Republicans hoped his crusade would quickly fade and that public opposition to the filibuster would not become an issue. But as the filibuster began causing public relations headaches for Republicans, McConnell actively decided to maintain his focus on health care, Republicans said.

“You can’t have a parallel debate with this president’s microphone,” the leadership aide said, explaining that if Republicans had pivoted at that point it could have hurt their ability to continue fighting the Democratic health care legislation.

The difference between Bunning’s first attempt to start a war over the deficit and the effort by McConnell and Coburn was stark. While Bunning found only a few half-hearted supporters in his Conference, Republicans on Thursday launched a coordinated attack against Democrats’ one-month extension.

Moderate GOP Senators, who were quick to criticize Bunning, actively supported McConnell and Coburn and on Thursday were reading from the GOP hymnal on “runaway debt” and “fiscal responsibility.”

Additionally, McConnell’s Senate Republican Communications Center was fully engaged this week, putting out numerous press releases highlighting Democratic leaders’ statements on the need for debt reduction and accusing Reid and Obama of a “failure of leadership.” The SRCC was conspicuously silent during Bunning’s earlier efforts.

Senate Democrats this week ultimately capitulated to GOP demands and agreed to a fully paid, one-week extension, although House Democrats refused to go along and left the issue unresolved when they broke for the Easter recess.