Relationship between Boehner, McConnell faces tough test

The relationship between House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) will be tested in the months ahead as political forces pull them in different directions.

Boehner is under pressure to persuade conservatives in his caucus to accept deals raising taxes and addressing an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the country. 

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McConnell’s job is to help get major bipartisan deals through the Senate, but he also has to worry about reelection in 2014 and a possible challenge from the right in a GOP primary. 

Already, the two leaders have struck different tones on the prospect of boosting federal tax revenues. Boehner has adopted a conciliatory tenor, while McConnell has taken a harder-nosed approach. 

GOP strategists have compared the contrasting roles to a “good cop, bad cop” strategy, in which one negotiator attempts to befriend the “perp” and the other tries to bully him into submission. 


Senior GOP aides insist there is no daylight between Boehner and McConnell on substantive issues, but lawmakers and Republican strategists say their roles will be very different. 

Boehner has already emerged as the driving force for bipartisan deals on taxes and immigration reform. 

Speaking at a press conference the day after the election, Boehner said, “For the purposes of forging a bipartisan agreement that begins to solve the problem, we’re willing to accept new revenue, under the right conditions.”

In an interview with Diane Sawyer on Thursday, Boehner declared immigration reform “an important issue that I think ought to be dealt with,” opening the door to a compromise that could grant legal residency to millions of illegal immigrants. 

President Obama spent the past year vilifying House Republicans for refusing to give any ground on raising taxes on the wealthy. His strategy to campaign against a “do-nothing” Republican Congress helped him turn around his poll numbers.

Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the Senate Democrats’ chief political strategist, applauded Boehner’s conciliatory tack and predicted McConnell would follow suit. 

“I was heartened, very heartened by the tone that Speaker Boehner showed yesterday in his remarks,” Schumer said. “He basically said that he is open to revenues, which many in his own party disagree with.”

But McConnell took a more skeptical approach to hiking taxes in a statement he released last week to Breitbart News, a conservative site.

“I wasn’t sent to Washington to raise anybody’s taxes to pay for more wasteful spending, and this election doesn’t change my principles,” he said. “I know some people out there think Tuesday’s results mean Republicans in Washington are now going to roll over and agree to Democrat demands that we hike tax rates before the end of the year. I’m here to tell them there is no truth to that notion whatsoever.”

One GOP strategist said it appeared the Boehner and McConnell had taken away different lessons from the election. 

“It seems clear from Speaker Boehner’s tone that he had a good chance to review the exit polls from last week’s election, where it doesn’t seem Leader McConnell has had that opportunity,” said John Weaver, a Republican strategist who worked on Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2000 and 2008 presidential campaigns. 

Weaver said the differing tones sounded by Boehner and 

McConnell owe to the fact that they are feeling different kinds of pressure. 

“The first rule in this business is there’s no interest like self-interest,” he said. 

Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist who worked for the McCain-Palin ticket in 2008, said, “The reelection is really weighing on McConnell’s mind.

“Kentucky is more of a right-leaning state,” he added. 

He said McConnell has to worry about a primary and a general-election challenge in 2014. He needs to figure out how to move possibly controversial deals on taxes and immigration reform through the Senate without damaging his standing with the party’s base. 

McConnell hired Jesse Benton, who ran Tea Party favorite Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) 2010 race, to head his reelection bid. He reported nearly $7 million in his campaign war chest at the end of September, according to a report filed with the Federal Election Commission.

O’Connell predicted that McConnell would let Boehner take the lead in tax and immigration reform talks, which would give him more flexibility to let deals move through the Senate. 

McConnell let the transportation authorization bill and the farm bill move through the Senate this year despite voting against both measures. If he doesn’t negotiate deals with Obama, he can let them pass without taking responsibility for them. 

Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, said McConnell would be Boehner’s “wingman” in tax talks. 

He said McConnell does not disagree with Boehner on taxes but has put more emphasis on not letting Democrats raise taxes without reforming mandatory spending programs. 

“I think what Boehner was focused on was the tax part of this. I think Mitch went a step further and said we also have to focus on entitlements, and I don’t think Speaker Boehner would disagree with that,” he said. 

Kyl predicted that McConnell would take a hands-off approach to immigration reform. 

“As leader, he would delegate, in effect, to the people who have worked it before or want to work it,” he said. 

Sens. McCain, Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Sen.-elect Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) are expected to take the lead for Republicans in the upper chamber next year on immigration. 

Michael Steel, Boehner’s spokesman, said there is no split between his boss and the Senate Republican leader.

“Speaker Boehner and Sen. McConnell — and their teams — continue to have a close, effective working relationship based on common support for a smaller, more accountable government and pro-growth economic reform,” he said. 

McConnell gave a little more ground when he spoke to the Senate chamber Tuesday afternoon. He echoed Boehner’s offer to compromise on tax revenues but insisted that a tax deal must be linked to entitlement reform. 

“New revenue must be tied to genuine entitlement changes that strengthen these programs for the future and preserve them and also address our long-term debt and deficit problems,” he said.

Don Stewart, McConnell’s spokesman, said the leaders are unified. 

“They are working together with the same goals of protecting jobs, reducing the deficit and protecting and strengthening the broken entitlement system,” he said. 

Brian Darling, senior fellow for government studies at the Heritage Foundation, compared Boehner to the good cop and McConnell to the bad.

“Boehner is the one reaching out to the White House and putting those issues on the table, and McConnell is not part of these negotiations. He doesn’t have to be part of the negotiation. He can sit back and see what deal is cut and if his caucus is going to support or oppose the deal. It allows him to dispassionately assess whether he likes the deals or not,” Darling said.