With his eye on 2013 Senate majority, McConnell lets Boehner take the lead

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has let House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) take the lead in recent political slugfests with President Obama and congressional Democrats.

The strategy has saved his Senate conference from bruising fights that could jeopardize the GOP’s chances of retaking control of the upper chamber in November. 

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It was Boehner, not McConnell, who said this month that President Obama lacks the “courage” to deal with the nation’s fiscal problems. McConnell later backed Boehner’s call to deal with expiring tax rates now, but with more measured rhetoric. 

Unlike Boehner, however, McConnell is not eager for a pre-election skirmish over the nation’s debt ceiling, deflecting the issue back to the White House.

“The timing will be determined by the president,” McConnell said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

“They determine when to request of us that we raise the debt ceiling. We assume that will happen at the end of the year or early next year,” he added. 

McConnell last month opted against a showdown with Senate Democrats over the Violence Against Women Act, which included controversial proposals to expand special visas for illegal immigrants and recognize same-sex couples. 

The Kentucky senator voted against the bill, but allowed it to pass without waging a filibuster.

“There’s no reason to have a fight over something nobody wants to have a fight over,” he said at the time. “We’re happy to work toward a reasonable time agreement to pass it in short order.”

The GOP-led House subsequently passed a measure that attracted the support of most Republicans in the lower chamber.

Even when McConnell has blocked high-profile legislation, he has attempted to lower the political temperature.

When the Senate GOP in April blocked a Democratic bill that would keep interest rates low on federal student loans, McConnell stressed that the parties agreed on the merits of the bill. What they disagreed on, he said, is how to pay for it.

McConnell last month broke with Boehner, voting for legislation that adhered to the spending levels outlined in the bipartisan debt-ceiling deal reached last August. House Republicans, meanwhile, have passed a budget that lowers those spending caps. 

In December, McConnell steered his conference around a standoff with Obama over extending the payroll tax holiday, a landmine House Republicans stepped on before quickly retreating. 

During several of these battles, McConnell has told his GOP colleagues that they should not become a lightning rod this election cycle. The focus, according to McConnell, should be on Obama and his record. 

“He’s made the point over the last year and a half that these are fights between the Speaker of the House and the president. We don’t need to be in the middle of it. The president is the issue; we don’t want to be the issue,” said a Senate GOP aide. 

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This represents a dramatic change in tone compared to the summer of 2010, when Senate Republicans were the last line of defense against Obama’s agenda.

In August of that year, McConnell blasted a mundane proposal to provide lending assistance to small business as “TARP III” and “son of TARP,” references to the $700 billion Wall Street bailout Congress passed in 2008.

The Senate GOP aide noted that McConnell is not afraid to confront Obama and the Democrats. On Tuesday, for example, he called the president the most anti-business president since Jimmy Carter. 

“It’s not about swallowing Democratic legislation. It’s about picking your battles,” said the aide. “There is no point in walking into a trap that is set for you. And playing on another guy’s field when you can play your own ballgame is stupid.” 

The staffer said McConnell had to let his rhetoric run full throttle in 2010 because he could not afford to lose a single Republican vote. 

“There was no margin for error,” said the aide. “If we were going to stop policy, we had to go berserk.”

The GOP aide said there’s no daylight between Boehner and McConnell, noting the leaders closely coordinate their remarks. 

While McConnell and his deputies often talk about the deficit and assail Senate Democrats for not passing a budget, they don’t want to repeat the stalemate of last summer — at least not yet. Independent political handicappers say Republicans have about a 50-50 chance to win control of the Senate this fall. 

House Republicans saw their approval ratings drop as a result of the 2011 brinkmanship, and the bipartisan accord that was struck didn’t appease Standard & Poor’s, which downgraded the nation’s credit rating.

The GOP aide said McConnell does not dictate the conference’s strategy.

“McConnell has never been a dictator. Everyone has a chance to weigh in on what the strategy should be. There are always folks on both sides who may not see it the same way,” said the staffer.