By Alexander Bolton - 10/17/13 09:25 PM EDT
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell says he will not allow another government shutdown as part of a strategy to repeal ObamaCare.
McConnell (Ky.) told The Hill in an interview Thursday afternoon that his party learned a painful political lesson over the past 16 days, as its approval rating dropped while the government was shuttered.
He said there’s no reason to go through the political wringer again in January, when the stopgap measure Congress passed late Wednesday is set to expire.
“One of my favorite old Kentucky sayings is there’s no education in the second kick of a mule. The first kick of a mule was when we shut the government down in the mid-1990s and the second kick was over the last 16 days,” he said. “There is no education in the second kick of a mule. There will not be a government shutdown.
“I think we have fully now acquainted our new members with what a losing strategy that is,” he added.
He said repeal in the short term is unlikely “unless Democrats get so shaky about parts of it.”
He noted many Democrats want to repeal the healthcare law’s medical device tax.
McConnell said the best chance of reforming ObamaCare before 2017 will come if Democratic support for the controversial law erodes dramatically.
“They may, depending upon the amount of heat they get from their constituents because of rising premiums, because of job loss, because of the chaos of the exchanges, they may be open to changes,” he said.
He said Republicans would be willing to pick the system apart if Democrats are also willing.
“But full-scale repeal is obviously something that’s not going to be achievable until I’m the majority leader of the Senate and we have a new president,” he said.
McConnell said the deal he inked with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) Wednesday to open the government and raise the ceiling was the best that could be achieved given the GOP’s weak political position.
He compared it to a punt in football, giving Republicans a chance to resume the battle from a better position next year.
“By the time I came in yesterday it was clear to me that it was up to me to get us out of the government shutdown and make sure we didn’t default,” he said of his decision to take over the negotiations, after it became apparent the House could not pass legislation that could also pass the Senate.
McConnell told his colleagues in a private meeting that they needed to escape a precarious political situation to push for spending and entitlement program reforms next year, when they will be in a position of greater strength.
“So I met with my members. I said, ‘Look, I think we all know I have a weak hand here,’ ” McConnell said. “I’m on my own two-yard line. The offensive line is a little shaky, and what best I think we can do is get off a punt here to try to get into a better field position.”
McConnell told fellow Republican senators that he would not allow the deal to cross two important red lines: it would not raise taxes and it would not undermine the spending reforms achieved under the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA).
Senate Democrats over the weekend proposed raising the spending levels in the government stopgap to begin unwinding the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration, according to Republicans. Reid on Sunday denied that he tried to break the caps set by the 2011 budget law.
“We need to try to defend against tax increases and defend the BCA,” McConnell told the Senate Republican Conference.
McConnell said “that’s all about I could achieve back on my own two-yard line.”
“We didn’t raise taxes and we didn’t bust the caps, but we’ll be back at in January and February, which is why I call it a punt, with better field position to fight again another day,” he said.
Congress has raised the debt limit until Feb. 7, but experts say the Treasury Department could invoke extraordinary measures to delay another battle over it until March or beyond.
McConnell wants to use the expiration of the debt ceiling next year as leverage to push for entitlement cuts, not repealing ObamaCare.
“We now have a $17 trillion national debt, which makes us look a lot like a Western European country,” he said. “We haven’t gotten a hold on the entitlement side, which is where the biggest problem is.”
But he will not let failure to make reductions in mandatory spending serve as an excuse for unwinding the discretionary spending sequestration cuts to domestic and defense spending Republicans won two years ago.
Some conservatives have criticized the deal harshly for failing to defund or make a major reform to ObamaCare, and 18 Republicans senators voted against it Wednesday.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) praised McConnell Wednesday for risking a political backlash from his base when he faces a primary challenger in 2014.
“My hat goes off to Sen. McConnell. He’s in a very difficult situation politically,” Schumer told reporters.
“His role in this could be a disaster for him politically,” said Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “This hurts him in the primary.
“The right is even more emboldened to go after him,” he added.
But McConnell sees a political advantage. He think the deal cuts the bottom out of the message of his likely general-election opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, who has assailed the GOP leader as an obstructionist.
“This has been a bad 24 hours for her because her whole narrative, her whole campaign is to try to paint me as a guy who is kind of a guardian for gridlock here in Washington,” McConnell said.
A new Democratic poll conducted by Public Policy Polling for the liberal advocacy group Americans United for Change shows Grimes leading McConnell by two points, 45 percent to 43.
“This is the fourth time that I’ve stepped up to prevent catastrophic occurrence in our country,” McConnell said, noting his role in deals to extend virtually all of the Bush-era tax cuts at the end of 2010, the Budget Control Act of 2011, and the fiscal-cliff deal of Jan. 1, 2013, which made most of the Bush tax cuts permanent.