McConnell staying at arm’s length

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) publicly distanced himself from House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Tuesday, the latest twist in a relationship put to the test in recent weeks. 

McConnell declined to endorse a proposal announced by Boehner on Monday to extend the payroll tax holiday without paying for it. 

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The Kentucky senator said last week the payroll tax cut must be offset, only to find himself days later being asked about Boehner’s shift, which would add about $100 billion to the deficit over 10 months. 

Asked about the new House GOP proposal, McConnell responded, “I don’t have a view on it right now.”

Yet McConnell also sought to downplay differences between Senate and House Republicans by blaming Democrats in the talks to extend the payroll tax rate, unemployment benefits and current-level Medicare payments to doctors. 

He noted that House and Senate negotiators have struggled to reach a consensus: “So I can understand why the House leadership, exasperated with the lack of progress in the conference, is looking around at other alternatives.”

At press time, however, there was renewed optimism that legislators were closing in on a comprehensive deal.

Boehner alerted McConnell that he would propose a 10-month extension of the payroll tax cut without offsets before he publicly announced the plan Monday, according to aides to both leaders. 

“They talk regularly and our offices are in touch every day,” said an aide to McConnell. 

Senate GOP sources say McConnell and Boehner have a close working relationship. They carefully coordinate strategy and often share the same political message from week to week. 

Their offices are connected by a private hallway that allows them to travel back and forth for face-to-face chats without the notice of the Capitol press corps.  

“Their relationship is outstanding,” said one GOP senator. 

But it has been strained over the last couple of months because of differences between Republicans in the two chambers over the payroll tax extension. 

Conservative House Republicans accused McConnell in December of selling them out by agreeing to a two-month temporary extension of the payroll tax holiday.

The broad support among Senate Republicans for the two-month package put heavy pressure on House Republicans to acquiesce, which they eventually did. 

“I feel really let down by the Senate Republicans,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) told The Washington Post at the time.

Chaffetz, who opted against running for a Senate seat this cycle, said McConnell “just rolled over to get his belly itched.” 

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans grumbled that Boehner could not control his own conference. 

Senate GOP sources said Tuesday that McConnell made it clear to colleagues that he did not want to endure another standoff on the payroll tax holiday. Instead, he wants to focus on President Obama’s economic record, his budget and the $1.3 trillion federal deficit. 

But McConnell, watching his right flank, is seeking to minimize the chances of alienating conservatives and Tea Party-affiliated colleagues in his caucus.

So while McConnell might support Boehner’s decision to retreat in the payroll tax battle, there is little political benefit to embracing the move when he, as minority leader, doesn’t have to. 

A package that extends the payroll tax holiday and unemployment benefits and that adds to the deficit would be able to pass the upper chamber with mostly Democratic support and that of only a dozen or so Republicans.

McConnell has been under pressure from Senate conservatives to take a hard line against deficit spending; he did that last week when asked whether he could support a payroll tax holiday extension without offsets. 

“We need to pay for it,” he said. “We now have a debt the size of our economy, which looks a lot like Greece. At what point do we anticipate getting serious here about doing something about deficit and debt?”

Conservatives in the Senate GOP conference initially balked at the House proposal to extend the tax holiday by adding to the deficit.

“I continue to say that defunding Social Security is the wrong thing to do. I think calling it a payroll tax is wrong. It’s a contribution to America’s retirement plan. I don’t see why we’re going down there. I’d take a different tack,” said freshman Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). 

But after meeting with Senate GOP leaders on Tuesday, they softened their opposition. 

“It’s not inconsistent with what Republicans have said about tax cuts not having to be paid for,” said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a leading Senate conservative. “I still don’t think the temporary payroll tax cut is going to help our economy. It’s political candy — once you give it out, it’s hard to take it away.

“I don’t think we have much choice,” he added. 

DeMint said Republicans have only two options: letting the tax holiday expire or extending it without pay-fors. 

He and other Republicans say it has become clear that conference negotiations have stalled and will not be able to find the estimated $150 billion to $170 billion needed to pay for a 10-month extension of expiring provisions.