By Alexander Bolton - 08/02/11 10:00 AM EDT
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) was the steadying hand that helped President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) strike a deal to raise the debt ceiling.
At a time when Boehner faced repeated insurrection from Tea Party-affiliated freshmen, McConnell calmed financial markets by declaring from the outset that GOP leaders would not allow the nation to default on its debt.
McConnell’s actions have won plaudits from Democrats, but they could make him the target of a conservative backlash.
Despite the political threat from his right flank, McConnell kept focused on his goal of preserving Republican chances of capturing the Senate in 2012. He feared that prize could slip away if Democrats successfully blamed the GOP for causing a national default and damaging the economy.
On Saturday, Vice President Biden called McConnell in an attempt to restart debt-limit talks with the GOP leadership, according to a Senate aide familiar with the sequence of events.
Later that day, Obama followed up with a telephone call of his own, hoping that McConnell could help end the partisan standoff.
McConnell has insisted throughout the contentious talks over spending cuts and taxes that he would not discuss anything without keeping Boehner in the loop.
Careful not to get “cross-wise” with the House GOP leadership, according to one aide, McConnell shuttled back and forth from his office to Boehner’s office on Saturday and Sunday, acting as a broker between president and Speaker. He used the red-painted hallway connecting their offices, which is off-limits to reporters, to travel back and forth.
A Senate Democratic aide said McConnell persuaded Boehner to allow defense spending to be subject to automatic cuts, if a special committee set up by the bipartisan deal failed to enact a deficit-reduction package worth at least $1.5 trillion.
Senate Republican aides, however, disputed that there was any daylight between the two GOP leaders. One GOP aide argued that the final debt deal calls for significantly less in defense cuts than a plan Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) scheduled for a vote Sunday.
Through it all, McConnell said he would do what was necessary to avoid a default.
He appeared determined to play a more public role after letting Boehner and Reid take the lead in negotiations to avoid a government shutdown in April.
“It’s extremely important that the country reassure the markets that default is not an option and reassure Social Security recipients and families of military veterans that default is not an option,” McConnell told reporters on July 12.
He declared the mission accomplished on Sunday evening.
“We can assure the American people tonight that the United States of America will not for the first time in our history default on its obligations,” he said on the Senate floor.
Walking back to his office, a photographer snapped a picture of him grinning broadly and flashing a thumbs-up. The impromptu portrait, which was later posted on Yahoo.com’s homepage, surprised Senate insiders who have long known McConnell as a stone-faced poker player.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), one of the Senate’s most partisan liberals, personally thanked McConnell on Sunday night for shepherding the talks, even though many liberals are angry with the outcome.
Liberal groups bashed the bipartisan agreement on Sunday. Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, a liberal advocacy group, called the deal a “capitulation.”
Even so, many Democrats and Republicans were relieved Monday that they appeared to have dodged the threat of a national default this month, which many lawmakers thought would trigger an economic calamity.
Durbin noted that McConnell took heat from conservatives when he unveiled a plan last month to give Obama authority to raise the debt ceiling — the first sign that GOP leaders were committed to avoiding a default.
“I admired the fact that he stood up and understood his responsibility, our responsibility to the nation beyond any partisan consideration,” Durbin said on the Senate floor Monday. “Sen. McConnell played a critical role in working out the agreement which will come before us.
“I thank him,” Durbin said.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) endorsed the deal on Monday afternoon, virtually assuring its passage through the House.
Democratic and Republican senators predicted it would easily pass the upper chamber.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), the de facto leader of Tea Party-affiliated conservatives in the Senate, made it plain Monday that he was not happy with the deal.
“I’m not going to tell Americans that we’re doing everything when we’re not,” DeMint told reporters. “We’re planning on adding another $10 trillion in debt.
“From the way it’s been explained to me, there’s not much to like,” he said.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), McConnell’s home-state colleague, dismissed the plan as woefully inadequate.
“This plan does not solve our problem. Not even close. I cannot abide the destruction of our economy, therefore I vigorously oppose this deal and I urge my colleagues and the American people to do the same,” Paul wrote in an open letter.
While the deal could open McConnell to some criticism from conservatives, averting a default will prevent Obama from blaming the GOP for wrecking the economy, something the GOP leader feared.
During an appearance on Laura Ingraham’s radio show last month, McConnell warned conservatives: “If we go into
default, [the president] will say that
Republicans are making the economy worse ... The president will have the bully pulpit to blame the Republicans for all of this destruction.
“I refuse to help Barack Obama get reelected by marching Republicans into a position where we have co-ownership of a bad economy,” he said.