By Alexander Bolton - 07/29/13 09:00 AM EDT
It’s tough being Mitch McConnell now. [WATCH VIDEO]
The Kentucky Republican is taking arrows from left and right, and having to fend off primary and general election challengers to win a sixth term.
At the same time, McConnell faces challenges this fall on Capitol Hill over the debt limit and a possible government shutdown. He is under pressure to reject compromise with Democrats or face a conservative backlash in his home state of Kentucky.
The strain is taking its toll, said one of McConnell’s colleagues who watched him during this month’s partisan battle over Tom Perez, President Obama’s nominee for secretary of Labor.
When the Senate voted to end debate on Perez, McConnell was in a bind. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was threatening to trigger the nuclear option, stripping Republicans of the filibuster if they blocked Perez.
McConnell did not want to be seen to cast the 60th and decisive vote for Perez (whom Republicans accuse of unwarranted liberal activism), because that could prompt a primary challenge from the right. But the minority leader also did not want Perez to fail, which would have unleashed Reid’s wrath and killed the filibuster.
So Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) led negotiations with Reid and McConnell was left, figuratively, biting his nails.
“McConnell waited around until the end of the vote to cast his vote to see if we would get 60,” a GOP colleague said. “You could see the torment on his face.”
A GOP aide, however, disputed this interpretation of the dramatic vote: “There’s never been a nominee he hated more than Thomas Perez. There’s no chance he’d vote for him.”
In any event, McConnell dodged the bullet, for Perez passed 60-40 even with the minority leader voting no, but the incident laid bare his difficulties.
These will grow in the months ahead. He must decide whether to side with conservatives threatening a government shutdown unless ObamaCare is defunded.
He must also opt in or out of a movement to block an increase in the federal debt limit unless Obama accepts a plan to balance the budget in 10 years.
The veteran senator also walked a tightrope on immigration. He and other party leaders, including strategist Karl Rove and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, believe passing comprehensive reform is in the GOP’s best interests. But that is radioactive for many conservatives, and so supporting it forcefully would be dangerous to McConnell.
He did not try to prevent a Senate vote and said before the floor debate, “I’m hopeful we’ll be able to get a bill we can pass here in the Senate.”
But he ultimately opposed final passage, citing the bill’s failure to guarantee operational control of the Southern border. As with the nominees, McConnell was content for a measure to pass but worried about voting for it.
“He’s really caught between the need to keep Republicans participating in the mainstream and to keep himself from being embarrassed in a primary,” said Al Cross, political columnist and journalism professor at the University of Kentucky.
“He can’t afford giving fresh evidence that he’s a compromiser. Tea Party people are not compromisers,” Cross said.
McConnell’s political calculus became more complicated last week when Matt Bevin, a Louisville businessman, announced he would challenge him in the primary.
Bevin’s first ad attacked McConnell for supporting “higher taxes, bailouts, debt ceiling increases, congressional pay raises and liberal judges.” McConnell’s campaign called for it to be taken off the air because it violated campaign disclosure rules.
Bevin won an important endorsement Sunday when the Madison Project, a conservative advocacy group that helped Sen. Ted Cruz defeat Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the 2010 Texas Republican primary, announced its support.
“Sen. McConnell emblemizes the rudderless leadership, vacuous core, and duplicitous tendencies of the powers that be within the party. He isn’t just part of the problem. He is the problem in Washington, D.C.,” the group wrote in a letter addressed to “conservatives in the Commonwealth of Kentucky and around the country.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who lost the 2010 Alaska Republican primary and won in the general election as a write-in candidate, said, “It makes everybody’s job harder, whether you are the minority leader [or not] when you have to run a campaign back home and tend to the daily task of governing, it’s hard. It’s just plain old hard.”
McConnell has tried to burnish his relationship with the Tea Party. He has already secured the support of Tea Party favorite Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and last week helped arrange the Tea Party Legislative Forum in the Strom Thurmond Room. He attended with Paul and Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), two other Tea Party allies.
Groups such as the Madison Project and the Senate Conservatives Fund say meeting with activists is not enough.
McConnell has yet to support an effort backed by Lee and Rubio to oppose any stopgap government funding measure that fails to defund the Affordable Care Act.
He appears to dislike the idea despite pressure from the Club for Growth, which has spent millions of dollars in past Republican primaries.
RedState.com, an influential conservative blog, reported that McConnell’s office has begun pressing other Republicans to back off Lee’s aggressive strategy.
The Madison Project cited this in its letter to supporters.
“In fact, as we write this endorsement, Sen. McConnell is pressuring his fellow Republican senators not to join the effort to defund ObamaCare, despite his carefully scripted anti-ObamaCare speeches,” the group wrote.
“He ducked his responsibility on the immigration bill. He could have defeated it. We have another opportunity with the funding of ObamaCare,” said Matt Hoskins, executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund. “This ObamaCare funding is a major test for him and his leadership.”
A GOP aide dismissed the argument that McConnell could have stopped a bill that already had strong support from McCain and Rubio.
“Some people think McConnell by waving his finger can deem a bill passed or blocked. It doesn’t work that way,” said the aide.
The aide said McConnell is not paralyzed by concern about next year’s primary so much as cautious about taking strong stands on issues that divide his Republican colleagues.
Some Republican colleagues think McConnell is making the right move for the party. They remember the last time a standoff between congressional Republicans and a Democratic president resulted in a shutdown, it proved politically disastrous for the GOP.
One Republican senator said the latest strategy to defund ObamaCare is wrong-headed:
“ObamaCare is going to collapse of its own weight. Why do we need to give Democrats an excuse to blame us for its failure. The building is about to collapse, why do we want to stand under it?”
McCain has also dismissed Lee’s idea.
The White House is expected to attack McConnell this fall and next year. His relationship with Obama is notoriously frosty.
McConnell will invoke Obama’s name a lot as he ramps up his criticism of Alison Lundergan Grimes (D), who will officially launch her campaign on Tuesday. Obama attracted only 38 percent of the vote in Kentucky last year.
But while McConnell is in a tough spot, he is no forlorn figure: He is a survivor who has won tough races before, and he has close to $10 million in campaign cash.