By Alexander Bolton and Alexandra Jaffe - 03/15/13 02:09 PM EDT
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Friday called for conservatives to put aside their differences with fellow Republicans and unify to fight President Obama’s agenda, specifically the implementation of healthcare reform.
McConnell told the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference it is time for the party to stop wallowing in the losses of the 2012 election.
Some speakers at CPAC — notably Texas Gov. Rick Perry — have criticized the party’s last two losing presidential candidates, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012. Perry said Thursday that the party failed to nominate conservative candidates to run against Obama.
A split has also emerged between establishment Republicans such as McCain and Tea Party-backed conservatives such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who addressed CPAC on Thursday.
McConnell suggested the infighting is hurting his party, especially as Democrats aim to extend Obama's legacy by trying to hold the Senate majority and win back the House in 2014.
“The folks who won last year’s election didn’t waste a whole lot of time on a victory lap. They got right back at it. These guys are well-organized, they’re well-financed, they’re ruthless, and if you don’t put this election behind us soon, they’re going to eat our lunch again,” McConnell said. “It is time to unite.”
He warned that Democrats are already preparing for the 2014 election and cited Organizing for Action, an advocacy set up by the president’s inner circle of advisers to promote his agenda.
The address by McConnell came a day after Obama and Senate Republicans had a cordial meeting at the Capitol to discuss areas of common ground.
Obama spent about 75 minutes meeting with McConnell and Senate Republicans to explore common ground on deficit-reduction and tax reform. But McConnell made clear on Friday morning that he is not interested in advancing the president’s agenda, specifically any expansion of government regulation.
“If you believe in conservative principles and you believe in your heart the direction Barack Obama wants to take this country is wrong, it’s time to stand up together and punch back,” he said.
To illustrate his argument, he had a dolly loaded with 20,000 pages of government rules and regulations implementing the 2010 Affordable Care Act rolled onto the stage.
Two days after Senate Republicans unsuccessfully voted for an amendment sponsored by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to defund the implementation of healthcare reform, McConnell pledged not to let the issue drop.
In the last Congress, McConnell did not initially embrace former Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-S.C.) call to force repeated votes on repealing the Affordable Care Act. Some Republicans have suggested moving on from the battle over healthcare to other issues. In a post-election interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said, “It’s pretty clear that the president was reelected, ObamaCare is the law of the land.”
“There are certainly maybe parts of it that we believe need to be changed, we may do that,” he said.
But on Wednesday, Boehner said the House would vote again to repeal or defund the law.
On Friday McConnell vowed to continue the battle.
“This law is a disaster. Anybody who thinks we’ve moved beyond it is dead wrong. ObamaCare should be repealed root and branch. And I want to let you know that we’re not backing down from this fight,” he said.
McConnell suggested a lack of unity within the GOP might have kept it from winning some Senate seats, which in turn would prevent a GOP Congress from overturning the healthcare law.
In the last two Senate elections, Republicans believe their chances of winning back the Senate have been hurt by weak candidates who triumphed in primaries dominated by conservatives.
"Unity is strength, and if you need any proof of that just ask yourself how we ended up with government-run healthcare," he said, noting that the GOP fell one vote short of blocking the healthcare reform bill from passage.
"So we need every vote we can get and we need every seat we can get. But let me tell you what that doesn't mean: It doesn't mean we need to dilute our principles," he added.
McConnell dismissed political pundits who view the Republican Party as being stuck in the past, citing Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Paul and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as promising stars.
“Don’t tell me Democrats are the party of the future when their presidential ticket for 2016 is shaping up to look like a rerun of the 'Golden Girls,' " he said, making reference to Hillary Clinton and Vice President Biden.
A spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee fired back.
“Even many conservative Republicans acknowledge that Mitch McConnell is a huge part of the problem in Washington. Republicans, Democrats, and Independents agree that Mitch McConnell cares more about playing politics than any principles - conservative or otherwise,” said Matt Canter.
Though the speech largely avoided mention of his reelection campaign, McConnell took a moment to hammer a liberal super PAC that issued a controversial tweet about his wife, holding it up as an example of "intolerance."
"Don't tell me we're the party of intolerance when nearly two years before the election, some liberal super-PAC is sending out racist tweets about my wife for the supposed crime of being born in another country," he said.
McConnell's wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, was born in China and emigrated to the U.S. The super-PAC, Progress Kentucky, mused in a tweet that their marriage "may explain why your job moved to #China!"
The tweet caused a wide backlash and has since become a focus of his campaign. McConnell's first ad featured Chao decrying attacks from "far-left special interests."
This story was updated at 1:04 p.m.