McCain, McConnell heading for spell of rocky relations

The relationship between Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is going to be awkward in the coming months.

McConnell finds himself increasingly constrained by both his new primary challenger and McCain’s expanded deal-making role with Democrats. 

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Republican senators told The Hill on Wednesday that McConnell is in danger of looking weak if McCain again seizes the leadership reins as he did to broker a deal to avert the “nuclear option” on President Obama’s executive nominees. 

McCain is interested in being a major player in the talks later this year when Congress must pass legislation to continue government funding and raise the national debt limit. 

The McConnell-McCain relationship has fluctuated over the years. One GOP aide described it as “toxic” in the late 1990s and early 2000s when they fought intensely over campaign finance reform legislation. 

Later, they locked horns on earmarks before Congress agreed to implement a ban on the pet projects long despised by McCain.

McConnell and McCain were on opposite sides in 2005 when then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) threatened to trigger a rule change that would have stripped the minority party of the power to filibuster judicial nominees.

McConnell backed Frist’s plan, but McCain worked within a bipartisan group of seven Republicans and seven Democrats to craft a compromise to thwart it. 

In 2006, McCain helped former Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) defeat Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), one of McConnell’s closest friends in the upper chamber, in a race for Republican whip. Republican sources said McCain was pivotal in helping Lott eke out a one-vote win by whipping votes for him. McConnell was officially neutral in the race, but colleagues assumed he wanted Alexander in the No. 2 slot.

The relationship improved after McCain ran for president, and he emerged as one of Obama’s biggest critics in Congress. 

The dynamic has changed since McCain formed a strong bond with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) over the last several months. McConnell and Schumer have repeatedly lambasted each other in recent years.

McCain on Wednesday disputed that he is stepping in to fill a leadership vacuum left by McConnell’s precarious political standing in Kentucky.

“I don’t think so,” said McCain, who also denied that he undermined McConnell by striking a deal with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on nominees. “In fact, he participated a lot in the last round of discussions.” 

But behind closed doors, McConnell complained that McCain undercut him. McConnell wanted to secure a pledge from Reid to shelve the nuclear option for the rest of the 113th Congress.

McConnell told lawmakers he could have gotten a better deal, according to a Republican senator who attended the meeting.

Some GOP colleagues think that may have been a face-saving ploy.

“McConnell knew something needed to be done, and McCain did it. They’re both institutionalists. They both love the Senate and knew if Harry went ahead with the nuclear option, there would be no going back,” said the senator, who requested anonymity to discuss the private meeting.

The lawmaker said McConnell was fully aware of McCain’s negotiations with Reid. 

“McConnell said McCain undercut him because he had to save face or risk looking weak,” the senator added. 

Senate Republicans say a similar scenario could play out later this year if McCain recruits a group of allies within the conference to strike a deficit-reduction deal with Obama. 

McCain’s chief concern is stopping the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration, which he believes have started to erode military morale and readiness.

The Arizona senator was among a group of GOP senators who met with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough on Tuesday. 

“John’s always in the middle of large issues,” Alexander said of McCain’s growing interest in the fiscal debate. 

Some Senate Republicans argue McConnell’s decision to steer clear of deficit negotiations is driven less by political timidity than by his staunch refusal to sign onto any pact that raises taxes. 

“I think this has less to do with McConnell than it does with McCain,” said a GOP aide. 

After negotiating an agreement late last year with Vice President Biden to preserve most of the Bush-era tax rates but increase taxes on people with higher incomes, McConnell said he would not support any additional tax hikes. 

“There’s not a chance that McConnell will revisit that,” the staffer said. “The vast majority of the conference agrees with that, and McCain does not.” 

McConnell sees little point in negotiating with Obama because he knows the president will demand additional tax revenue as the price of any broad budget deal.

McCain has not ruled out raising taxes, but he says the additional revenue should come from closing special-interest tax breaks, such as subsidies for ethanol production. 

Conservatives in the Senate are against funding Obama-Care implementation in any government spending measure this fall. McCain has ripped that strategy, while McConnell hasn’t said which way he is leaning. 

Should McConnell vote for an ObamaCare funding bill this fall, he is sure to be criticized by his new primary opponent, Matt Bevin, as well as right-leaning groups.

Former Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) said McCain is one of a few senators outside the Republican leadership with the influence to forge a major deficit-reduction deal with Democrats.

“He obviously has the clout within the conference to bring others along,” she said.

Snowe said she does not know whether McConnell and McCain consider themselves friends, but she said both veteran lawmakers respect each other. 

Snow described the relationship as “open and frank.” 

She said McCain often diverges from the Republican leader though always gives him advance notice. 

“They did not always agree and had intense dealings on certain issues, but at the end of the day, they respect and understand each other’s viewpoints,” she said. “The key is not to surprise and to ensure you don’t surprise your leadership.

“John has always been upfront and straightforward,” she said.