McConnell keeps spotlight off GOP

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’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.

ADVERTISEMENT
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 Boehner (R-Ohio) has scheduled a vote on the Senate legislation.

This week’s action capped weeks of wrangling with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (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 McCaskill (Mo.) and Jon Tester (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 Cornyn (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 Hagan (N.C.), Bob Casey 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.