McConnell’s bring-it-on moment

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Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) delivered a message to Tea Party critics when he cast a decisive vote Wednesday that led to Senate passage of a debt-ceiling hike: Bring it on.

In perhaps his most defining moment in the 113th Congress, McConnell strode up to the dais and declared his “aye” vote in a clear voice heard throughout the chamber. It broke the impasse and seven more Republicans soon voted as well to end the filibuster.

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It was a risky decision for McConnell, who is facing a difficult primary battle from businessman Matt Bevin, a conservative backed by Tea Party groups.

McConnell’s vote broke a filibuster by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) that was backed by the Club for Growth, which helped defeat former Sens. Bob Bennett (Utah) and Dick Lugar (Ind.) in Republican primaries in 2010 and 2012 but has stayed out of McConnell’s race so far.

His colleagues hoped Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), a centrist Republican, would provide the needed 60th vote but Murkowski refused unless the GOP leadership team joined her, according to a source who was on the floor during the standoff. 

Supporters of McConnell inside and outside the Senate said it was a moment of real leadership for the longtime Kentucky senator, who, over the past year, has voted more often with Tea Party groups as he readied for the tough primary challenge.

Supporters viewed it as a sign that McConnell, always a supporter of the Senate as an institution, would not be cowed by pressure from outside groups.

“McConnell’s not going to be defined by any outside groups. He’s always going to be motivated by what he thinks is best for Kentucky and the country,” said Billy Piper, McConnell’s former chief of staff. “He’s an easy target for some because he’s not afraid to take positions.”

Al Cross, a political commentator and professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky, said McConnell wants to “squash” those groups “like a bug.”

“And at some point you got to stand up and take a tough vote and say what you stand for,” he said. “He’s suffering attacks from the left and the right. A politician can withstand those types of attacks if people believe that he’s in office trying to do the right thing and has the public interest at heard. In this case, he makes that argument.”

After the vote, McConnell quipped to his campaign team they weren’t going to like what he did, but his Senate colleagues breathed a sigh of relief. 

In October, when congressional Republicans were poised on the brink of a fiscal crisis without a strategy for ending it, the party’s approval plummeted to a historic low.

Had McConnell not voted to end the filibuster, the bill would have stalled, and Republicans would have taken the blame.

“There was never any endgame discussed," said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who voted with McConnell. “We weren't going to put this country through two weeks of turmoil.”

McConnell voted shortly after Corker cast what appeared to be the 59th vote to advance the debt-limit bill. Reporters perched in the Senate gallery above the floor thought they saw Corker switch his vote from no to yes but a source with direct knowledge said he never switched his vote.  

McConnell then voted against final passage of the debt-limit bill, but at that point, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) didn’t need any Republican help to win a simple majority vote.

McConnell’s decisive vote seems to end — at least for now — what some Republican senators described as a period of weak leadership in the conference.

“It was clearly a case where leaders of the Senate had to lead,” said Cross.

But McConnell’s political enemies immediately seized on the vote, with Bevin tweeting that Kentucky deserved better.

“The vote was very big; he was forced out of the shadows,” said Matt Hoskins, executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund, which has raised $1.2 million to help Bevin.

Conservatives supporting Bevin say the Club for Growth would have a major impact if it supported his candidacy. It has stayed neutral so far. 

Club for Growth President Chris Chocola wrote an op-ed for National Review Online Thursday blasting Boehner for supporting a clean debt-limit bill. But it didn’t mention McConnell.

“It’s time to consider whether the Republican-party leadership stands for anything — other than retaining power for power’s sake,” he wrote.

McConnell tried to avoid the messy standoff by letting Democrats pass the debt-limit bill with a simple majority vote, but Cruz objected and refused to back down. By putting a political target on his own back, McConnell spared his conference another showdown with President Obama that many of them saw as a losing fight.

During the 16-day government shutdown in October, some Republicans grew frustrated because they felt he wasn’t standing up to Cruz, who spearheaded opposition to the government funding measure.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) scolded him in a private meeting last year over what he called the leadership vacuum in the conference.

Conservative critics like Hoskins say McConnell has advanced an agenda unpopular with the conservative base from behind the scenes while avoiding taking tough votes himself. 

They note that, while he voted against comprehensive immigration reform legislation, he encouraged Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to join the Gang of Eight, which paved the way for the bill passing.

McConnell also gave members of his conference the green light to vote for the Murray-Ryan budget deal, which replaced a portion of the automatic budget cuts known as the sequester. The Club for Growth and Heritage Action urged opposition because it raised federal spending caps.

This time, however, only four Republicans were willing to vote for a clean debt-limit bill without political cover from McConnell himself.

Tempers flared during an hour-and-a-half meeting of the conference in the Mansfield Room immediately before the vote.

“They had a very contentious lunch meeting before the vote. There were raised voices,” said a Senate Republican aide.

Even afterward, as senators streamed to the floor for the big vote, it was uncertain who would provide the votes to avert another crisis over a potential national default.

Hoskins, who served as an aide to former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) before taking over the Senate Conservatives Fund, said the episode shows McConnell is losing his influence in the conference.

“The implication is that McConnell is losing his juice,” he said. “Normally, he can get people to vote for these things he wants to pass. For the first time, he has people in the conference saying, ‘No, I’m not walking the plank unless you’re walking with me.’ ”

“Leaders can’t ask members to do what they’re not willing to do themselves. He certainly stepped up and did the right thing,” said Cross.

McConnell’s allies say he has taken difficult positions throughout this Congress and his career. They point to his role in negotiating the tax deal that avoided the fiscal cliff at the start of 2013. It was unpopular with some conservatives because it raised taxes, but it also made the Bush-era rates permanent for 99 percent of taxpayers.

In 2011, McConnell helped negotiate the Budget Control Act, which decreased federal spending for two years in a row for the first time since the Korean War. 

McConnell also convened the negotiations that ended the fall’s government shutdown. He voted for the ensuing deal that reopened the government and avoided potential government default.

— Erik Wasson contributed reporting.

This story was updated at 4:23 p.m.