McConnell to take lead in entitlement talks, with Boehner in back seat

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is poised to play a bigger role in negotiations to reform entitlement programs in the wake of the tax deal he helped forge last week. 

Lawmakers see the passage of a bill to extend most of the Bush-era income tax rates and settle the question of estate, capital gains and dividend tax rates as a template for how to move the next installment of deficit reduction. 

That would mean moving bipartisan legislation first in the Senate and put McConnell, the senior senator from Kentucky, in the driver’s seat. 

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“I think he’ll play a major role. I think he and Vice President Biden have a good working relationship,  and it appears to be one of the few good working relationships that the administration has with members of Congress on the Republican side of the aisle,” said former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who was one of McConnell’s most trusted advisers and is a columnist for The Hill. 

But Gregg said McConnell “is not going to move forward without Boehner participating either directly or indirectly.” 

Senior Republican aides say McConnell is not looking to supplant Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in deficit-reduction talks but he will play whatever role is necessary to achieve progress. 

“He will try to be as productive as he can all the way through,” said a senior GOP aide. “If his role takes a different tack, given the circumstances, he’s going to do his job. He’s not going to walk away.” 

That is a change from the summer of 2011 and the fall of 2012, when Boehner negotiated one on one with Obama to impose reforms to Medicare and Social Security, while McConnell was kept in the loop but took a backseat to the House leader. 

McConnell was kept mostly on the sidelines in the run-up to the fiscal cliff on Dec. 31, until talks between Obama and Boehner fizzled. McConnell impressed colleagues on both sides of the aisle when he stepped in to the discussions shortly after Christmas and hammered out a deal with Biden only a few days later. 

McConnell will have to play a bigger role earlier in this year’s deficit-reduction talks; Boehner has said he is finished talking one on one with the president.

A House GOP leadership aide said Boehner wants to avoid secretive leadership talks and move spending reforms through the committees instead.

“The goal is through regular order. Which is how the House has always acted — it is inaction from the Democratic leadership in the Senate and the White House that has pushed America up to the deadline again and again,” said Michael Steel, Boehner’s spokesman.

McConnell supports Boehner’s call for the next round of deficit reduction to move through regular order and has pressed Democratic leaders to cooperate.

“I call on the majority leader and the rest of my Democrat colleagues to start working with us right now, not one hour or one day or one week before we hit the debt limit, but ahead of time for once — so we can pass a bipartisan spending-reduction solution that everyone has had an opportunity to weigh in on in early February,” McConnell said on the floor earlier this month.

But given the short amount of time until the next deadline and that the Senate is not scheduled to resume its regular session until Jan. 22, political experts say the next deal will likely be negotiated again at the leadership level.

“My general thought is negotiations at the level of party leaders are still required,” said Steven S. Smith, professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis, who specializes in studying Congress. “This could take place initially in the Senate, taking the recent action as the model, and give House Republicans a take-it-or-leave-it choice.”

Smith says the danger for House Republicans in letting McConnell take much of a lead is they might not like the result and have little ability to mold a compromise package. The tax deal McConnell negotiated last week with Biden drew the support of only 85 House Republicans. 

McConnell and Boehner appear to be diverging on the question of their party’s biggest point of leverage to force concessions from Obama on entitlement spending.

Boehner said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that the automatic spending cuts known as the sequester give Republicans their best opportunity to push Obama to accept reforms. 

But Senate Republicans think the debt ceiling is a stronger lever. 

“The debt ceiling has a fair amount of leverage. It’s the only thing that I can think of for the foreseeable future that the president needs Congress to do,” said a Senate Republican aide.

McConnell has had a cool relationship with Obama and marveled at times that the president has not done more to engage with him. 

His relationship with Biden, who served 36 years in the Senate, has been warmer. McConnell conducted secret talks with Biden after the 2010 election to set up a deal to extend almost all of the Bush-era tax cuts for two years and unemployment insurance for 13 months. 

McConnell has pushed Obama and Democrats to get involved earlier so he is not forced to hash out another last-minute deal to avoid economic calamity. 

“These last-minute deals are no way to run the government. We’ve known all of these deadlines are coming. Why we end up in these last-minute discussions is beyond me,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”

His appearance on three network Sunday talk shows could signal that McConnell is already becoming the Republican face of the debt-limit talks. 

This story was posted at 5 a.m. and updated at 12:01 p.m.