McConnell keeps spotlight off GOP

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPolitical figures pay tribute to Charles Krauthammer Charles Krauthammer dies at the age of 68 Overnight Energy: EPA declines to write new rule for toxic spills | Senate blocks move to stop Obama water rule | EPA bought 'tactical' pants and polos MORE’s surprise decision to allow a Democratic tax bill to pass the upper chamber fits his political strategy of keeping the Senate GOP out of the spotlight.

McConnell (Ky.) decided to drop the customary 60-vote threshold for major legislation after discussing tactics for days with GOP colleagues and alerting conservative groups that might have otherwise panned the move.

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A GOP leadership aide said the vote takes attention off the Senate GOP.

“He was able to put the focus squarely on Senate Democrats. It worked like a charm,” the aide said. “All but two of them voted for a major tax increase.”

Only Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), an Independent who caucuses with Democrats, voted against it.

McConnell has told colleagues during private meetings this year that Senate Republicans should not make themselves the focus of partisan battles.

In April, he opted out of a showdown with Senate Democrats over the Violence Against Women Act, which included controversial language to expand visas for illegal immigrants and recognize same-sex couples.

McConnell has also allowed Democrats to pass a multiyear transportation authorization bill and a multibillion-dollar farm bill, letting House Republicans take the lead in battling the high-profile legislation.

He did so despite voting against all three bills.

“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,” a Senate GOP aide told The Hill earlier this year. 

Instead of media headlines focusing on Senate Republicans blocking the Democratic plan to raise taxes on the wealthy, attention will shift to the House, where next week Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerFormer top Treasury official to head private equity group GOP strategist Steve Schmidt denounces party, will vote for Democrats Zeal, this time from the center MORE (R-Ohio) has scheduled a vote on the Senate legislation.

This week’s action capped weeks of wrangling with Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidAmendments fuel resentments within Senate GOP Donald Trump is delivering on his promises and voters are noticing Danny Tarkanian wins Nevada GOP congressional primary MORE (D-Nev.) over the timing and process for considering President Obama’s plan to raise taxes on families earning over $250,000.

McConnell justified his strategy to colleagues by noting the Democratic legislation could not become law because it originated in the Senate. The Constitution states that "all bills for raising revenue" must originate in the House.

McConnell told his colleagues in private that he wanted to put vulnerable Democrats such as Sens. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillConservative group calls for ethics probe into McCaskill’s use of private plane Senate moderates hunt for compromise on family separation bill Election Countdown: Family separation policy may haunt GOP in November | Why Republican candidates are bracing for surprises | House Dems rake in record May haul | 'Dumpster fire' ad goes viral MORE (Mo.) and Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterOvernight Defense: Trump orders Pentagon to help house immigrant families | Mattis says 'space force' needs legislation | VA pick gets hearing date Election Countdown: Family separation policy may haunt GOP in November | Why Republican candidates are bracing for surprises | House Dems rake in record May haul | 'Dumpster fire' ad goes viral Senate panel schedules hearing on Trump VA pick MORE (Mont.) on record supporting a hefty tax increase.

“I think it was really smart because every Democrat other than Sen. Webb and Sen. Lieberman ended up voting for a bill that creates a definition between Republicans and Democrats on taxes,” said Sen. John CornynJohn CornynSenate moving ahead with border bill, despite Trump GOP senators introduce bill to prevent family separations at border Senate GOP tries to defuse Trump border crisis MORE (Texas), the chairman of the Senate Republican fundraising arm. “It creates a real problem for Democratic incumbents who are running for reelection this time.”

One senior GOP aide said McConnell was eager to force endangered Democratic incumbents to vote on actual tax legislation instead of preliminary procedural issues, which can be minimized on the campaign trail.

The aide noted the last time Senate Democrats cast up-or-down votes on the Bush-era tax rates was in December 2010, when 45 Democrats in the Senate voted to extend the rates for all income levels.

One Republican senator said he thought McConnell appeared “gleeful” before the vote. McConnell even joked with Vice President Biden about the normally voluble politician not being able to participate in the debate because he was presiding over the session. 

Reid, by contrast, seemed irritated and at one point dismissed McConnell’s oration as “poppycock.”

One Republican senator said McConnell had discussed his strategy “over several days” and “multiple lunches” to prepare his conference for the prospect of dropping the 60-vote threshold that minority leaders usually insist upon for major votes.

Knowing that Webb and Lieberman would vote against the legislation, McConnell wanted to put Reid in the difficult position of corralling the rest of his caucus to vote for tax hikes on annual income greater than $250,000.

McConnell also wanted to force Democrats from farm states, such as Sens. Kay HaganKay Ruthven Hagan2020 Dems compete for top campaign operatives Senate GOP rejects Trump’s call to go big on gun legislation Politics is purple in North Carolina MORE (N.C.), Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyAction by Congress is needed to help victims of domestic violence Poll: Casey holds double-digit lead over Barletta in Pa. Senate race Ivanka Trump to press Senate on vocational training bill MORE Jr. (Pa.) and McCaskill, to vote a bill that would extend income tax rates for middle-class families but not extend a lower estate tax rate. Without congressional action, the estate tax will rise to 55 percent for an inheritance over $1 million — or $2 million per couple.

The Missouri Farm Bureau Federation this week sent a letter to McCaskill informing her that a $1 million exemption would not protect “a typical farm or ranch from estate taxes considering land values and the cost of machinery.”

McCaskill has said she supports extending the current exemption on inheritances under $5 million or $10 million per couple.

One GOP senator familiar with private discussions said McConnell alerted conservative groups in advance to avert a potential backlash. The lawmaker said conservative groups could have criticized him for letting Democrats pass a bill that raised taxes.

A senior GOP aide, however, said McConnell’s communication was not a warning or prompted by concern of blowback. The aide said the GOP leadership regularly communicates about expected floor action with constituencies.