McConnell sparks conservative ire with debt-limit vote
© Greg Nash

Snared in a contentious primary fight, Sen. Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Defense: VA nominee on the ropes | White House signals it will fight for pick | Trump talks Syria with Macron | McConnell tees up Pompeo vote Schumer to oppose Pompeo as secretary of State Trump's nominee for the VA is on the ropes MORE (R-Ky.) voted on Wednesday to end debate on debt-limit legislation in a move that’s already fueling criticism from conservatives.

The vote on cloture passed 67-31 but took more than an hour, highlighting the arm-twisting going on behind closed doors, as few Republicans wanted to be seen as casting the deciding vote for the bill. It went on to pass on party lines, 53-44, with only Republicans voting no.

McConnell left the Senate floor without answering questions, but minutes after he logged his vote his primary challenger, businessman Matt Bevin, was already out blasting him for it.

“Once again #McConnell caves to the left, and votes to break conservative fillibuster on #DebtCeiling,” Bevin posted on Twitter.

The campaign also tweeted a photo of McConnell patting president Obama on the back with the caption, “@McConnellPress votes to give Obama another blank check” along with the phrase #KYDateNight.

Bevin's campaign pointed out that the Senate minority leader had previously voiced support for gaining debt-cutting concessions from Democrats as a prerequisite to raising the debt ceiling. Republicans widely said Wednesday afternoon, however, that after the House passed a clean debt-limit increase on Tuesday, they had no leverage to demand concessions in the Senate.

Senate Conservatives Fund, a national conservative group that’s backing Bevin in the primary, also tweeted about their discontent with the senator.

“Mitch McConnell just voted with the Democrats to advance yet another debt limit increase. Kentucky deserves better,” the group tweeted.

Earlier Wednesday, Bevin had called on McConnell to oppose the increase, which looked all but certain to pass the Senate after the House approved it on Tuesday.

"Despite his 30-year record of always supporting reckless debt increases, I challenge Mitch McConnell to seriously consider what is at stake for future generations. I challenge him to vote against another blank check and to unite Senate Republicans in doing the same,” Bevin said in a Wednesday-morning statement.

Polling has shown McConnell leading Bevin by consistent double-digit margins, but the challenge has drawn time and resources from the senator that his allies say he’d rather spend focusing on his expected Democratic opponent, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.

McConnell’s primary fight has arguably impacted his votes before. In December, he voted against a bipartisan budget deal, along with a handful of other Republican senators facing primary challengers.

His colleagues appeared aware of the risk for McConnell. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told reporters that the Republican leader showed “tremendous courage” in voting for the debt hike.

"He voted responsibly under the circumstances. Hopefully people will understand that McConnell, in the toughest Republican race in the country, had the courage to vote the way the vast majority of everybody understood the vote needed to go. He did that, and I think it shows tremendous courage on his part,” he said.

Others were confident the vote would ultimately have no impact on the race.

"I think people understood that he is not for raising the debt ceiling without something attached; obviously that was impossible after the House voted for a clean increase," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is facing a primary challenge of his own. "Hopefully the other people voting with him helps, and hopefully people see it as an act of pragmatic leadership."

McConnell may feel he has some cover in the primary because of news reports this week that Bevin might have previously supported and praised the financial bailout that he’s decried during his Senate run.

The report quickly caught fire in conservative circles and reportedly raised questions for some Kentucky Tea Party activists about Bevin’s candidacy, though Bevin maintains that he had no hand in writing the documents from his investment firm that spoke favorably of the program, even though he signed them.