McConnell risks political capital to show solidarity with Boehner in payroll fight

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) risked some political capital last week to make a high-profile show of solidarity with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), allaying scrutiny of their relationship.

McConnell split with his entire leadership team and most of the Senate GOP conference to vote for a 10-month extension of the payroll tax holiday, despite his own deep misgivings.

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Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), the senior Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, who opposed the legislation, said he thought McConnell voted "yes" to show solidarity with Boehner.

“Oh sure,” said Hatch, when asked if McConnell’s vote was a demonstration of allegiance with Boehner. “I think that and plus I think he knew this had to pass.”

Many Senate Republicans were eager to move beyond the payroll tax debate, which they felt put them at a political disadvantage to President Obama.

Hatch said it’s important for McConnell to be able to work with all the leaders on Capitol Hill, but with Boehner especially.

“You can’t do anything unless you support solidarity,” said Hatch.

“My experience with both of them is they have a good relationship. McConnell is a terrific leader on our side and Boehner is proving to be a very strong leader on their side and I happen to be a very good friend to both of them,” he said.

Boehner and his leadership team, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and House Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) all voted for the package, which was negotiated by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.).

Senate Republican members of the Senate-House conference complained they were cut out of the talks, and refused to sign the final agreement.

McConnell had strong reservations about the legislation and declined to endorse it earlier in the week. Just a week earlier, McConnell declared publicly the legislation should not add to the deficit.

“I don’t have a view on it right now,” he told reporters Tuesday.

Yet McConnell took pains not to criticize House Republican leaders when they endorsed a proposal to add the $90 billion cost of the extended tax holiday to the $1.3 trillion deficit.

Instead, he focused on blaming Democrats for refusing to give ground in the talks.

“I can understand why the House leadership, exasperated with the lack of progress in the conference, is looking around at other alternatives,” he said.

The relationship between Boehner and McConnell has come under close watch since December, when they appeared to split over a two-month extension of the payroll tax holiday and unemployment benefits.

Boehner — to the surprise of Senate leaders — refused to endorse a stopgap measure negotiated by McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.). McConnell helped end the standoff by publicly pressing the House GOP to accept the deal.

Some House conservatives were irate.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) accused McConnell of undermining House Republicans.

“I feel really let down by the Senate Republicans,” Chaffetz 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.”

A spokesman for Boehner on Friday said “the Speaker and Sen. McConnell have a close and productive working relationship.”

McConnell stayed quiet about his position on the 10-month payroll tax holiday extension up until the moment on Friday he voted "yes." He had a chance to make a final endorsement for the bill before the roll call, but instead yielded the Republican-controlled speaking time back to the chairman without comment.

In a statement released after the vote, McConnell said he supported the legislation to avert a tax hike.

“I voted to extend the temporary payroll tax holiday because I didn’t want taxes going up next month on millions of Americans,” he said. “I don’t think the American people should have to suffer any more than they already have as a result of this president’s failure to turn the economy around more than three years into his presidency.”

Other Republican leaders such as Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (S.D.) thought it was bad legislation that would increase the debt without substantially stimulating the economy.

Conservative members of the Senate GOP conference blasted the agreement because of its impact on the deficit.

A day before the Senate vote, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said it would be “absolutely immoral” not to offset the cost of the payroll tax holiday.

Yet many Republicans in the conference wanted to get beyond the payroll tax debate, which they saw as a political winner for Obama, who used his bully pulpit effectively in December to blame Republicans for an impasse in the negotiations.

“The most important thing was to get this off the plate. Come hell or high water we needed to move on to other things,” said a senior Republican aide.

McConnell might have to replenish his stock of good will among Senate conservatives in the weeks ahead. He did so earlier this month when he voted for an amendment to establish a permanent ban on earmarks, a proposal he resisted in the past.

The earmark ban is a favorite of conservatives such as Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). It is also in line with the views of Boehner, who has never solicited earmarks during his congressional career.

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