McConnell, Boehner face tough job of smoothing tensions when they return

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) have their work cut out for them next month to reduce the simmering tensions between their caucuses.

McConnell’s and Boehner’s staffs kept in regular contact throughout the year but it still was not enough to avert a blow-up before year’s end.

Frustrations with House Republicans bubbled over among Senate Republicans when House conservatives pushed their leaders to reject a two-month extension of the payroll tax holiday and unemployment benefits.

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House conservatives grumbled that McConnell had jammed them by agreeing to the two-month extension and a subsequent motion to adjourn the chamber until January, giving the lower chamber a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum.

“I feel really let down by the Senate Republicans,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) told The Washington Post. “We were under the impression that we were strengthening the Senate’s hands and that by passing this tough bill it would give Mitch McConnell more room to negotiate.”

Chaffetz said McConnell “just rolled over to get his belly itched.” 

Senate Republicans blasted their House counterparts for tarnishing the GOP brand by putting 160 million Americans at risk for a January payroll tax hike, only to back down abjectly right before Christmas.

“It’s harming the Republican Party,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), an influential member of the Senate GOP conference.

Veteran Republican insiders say the blowup between Senate and House Republicans has put a strain on McConnell and Boehner’s relationship.

“If the Speaker was in a meeting and said something and later reversed it, that would be problematical to their relationship,” said former Rep. Michael Castle (R-Del.).

Senate Democrats say Boehner signaled to them and McConnell that he would support whatever bipartisan deal McConnell negotiated with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), only to turn his back on it a few days later.

Aides to Boehner have insisted that this is not true and that Boehner never gave his proxy.

Whatever commitments were made behind closed doors, it was clear that McConnell and Boehner were not in sync.

McConnell broke from him publicly by releasing a statement urging the House to approve the Senate-passed compromise. McConnell’s pressure proved to be the last straw before House GOP resistance collapsed.

“Individuals need to work together and if you’re in the same political party, you clearly need to work together. That can be a liability,” said Castle.

GOP strategists say the difficulty McConnell and Boehner face in coordinating their maneuvers stem from the unpredictability of the House Republican conference. The problem is magnified when negotiations are moving quickly before a looming deadline.

“Both sides worked extremely close together. In a fast-paced negotiation it’s hard to know where everyone stands and that type of communication coordination is difficult no matter what the circumstances,” said Ron Bonjean, who served as a senior aide to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

GOP aides in Congress support that assertion. One senior Senate GOP aide said Boehner’s chief of staff, Barry Jackson, visited McConnell’s office almost every day in the weeks before the payroll tax cut standoff.

“I would say that Republicans on the Hill now have plenty of time to coordinate their strategies and they no longer have the Christmas holiday being used against them as a weapon by President Obama,” said Bonjean.

Bonjean said Democrats put added pressure on Republicans by using Christmas as a public-relations lever, attempting to portray the GOP as cruel by threatening to raise taxes and cut employment benefits before the holiday. He said the dynamic will be different in February, making it easier for Republicans to hold a unified front.

But some Republican strategists believe the December mix-up between McConnell and Boehner has hurt their negotiating position on a full-year extension of the payroll tax holiday yet to be negotiated.

“It goes back to the old adage, don’t take a hostage unless you’re willing to shoot the hostage,” said a former senior congressional leadership aide.

The GOP strategist said Republicans won the policy showdown with Democrats by forcing them to accept a provision expediting a decision on the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline. But Democrats won the political battle by positioning themselves in favor of a middle-class tax cut that Republicans appeared to oppose. The source requested anonymity to discuss the bargaining strategy of former colleagues.

The GOP strategist said it will be difficult for Republicans to win additional concessions from Obama in exchange for extending the payroll tax holiday a full year because they showed in December that they are not willing to let it expire.

“Taking that hostage isn’t going to get you anything two months from now. Democrats are going to take a much harder line. I don’t think Republicans are going to get anything for it. At the end of the day they’re going to have to eat,” the strategist said.

The silver lining of the December payroll tax meltdown is that conservative Republican freshmen in the House might have learned to trust Boehner’s political judgment and could be less likely to rebel, even if they believe themselves to be on the correct side of a policy argument, if they trust their leaders’ judgment about the political fallout.

“The problem is the Republican House leadership wasn’t in sync with its caucus,” said one GOP strategist.

A second strategist said: “The next time they do this, they’ll be much more understanding of Boehner when he says what the politics are. They’re freshmen, they haven’t dealt with the politics as much.”

Some House GOP lawmakers said Boehner implied his support for the Senate-passed compromise during a conference call on Dec. 17 but did not outright endorse the deal.

Boehner’s staff said he voiced support for the Keystone pipeline provision but not the overall package.