McConnell free to deal

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — likely 2016 presidential contender and Tea Party hero cut from his father, Ron’s, mold — surprised no one when he voted against the New Year’s Day fiscal-cliff deal that blocked tax increases for 99 percent of Americans but didn’t cut spending. Yet Paul can be thanked for the deal nonetheless — and perhaps another, even larger deal to avert default next month. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Paul’s senior senator, who opposed Paul when he began his Senate run in 2010, cut the cliff deal with Paul’s support. Indeed, Paul has endorsed McConnell for reelection in 2014 and has McConnell’s back in GOP politics at home, without which McConnell likely would have faced a primary challenge, and there likely wouldn’t have been a deal. 

We can’t give Paul all the credit; after all, McConnell not only knows how to talk at the negotiating table when no one else can, but he went ahead and talked Paul’s former campaign manager, Jesse Benton, into running his campaign. As a result the field appears clear and McConnell won’t face the kind of Tea Party challenge that derailed his other veteran Republican colleagues, who never saw it coming. Unlike Sens. Bob Bennett of Utah and Dick Lugar of Indiana, taken out in 2010 and 2012, respectively, by more conservative, insurgent candidates backed by the Tea Party, McConnell has always appreciated the potency of the brew and keeps one eye over his shoulder. 

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McConnell faced immediate criticism from conservatives for the tax package he hatched with Vice President Biden, one a majority of House Republicans and two of their leaders opposed. One conservative group took out an ad against him in Kentucky. But groups that would fund a primary challenger, like the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, have all but conceded they don’t have one. 

McConnell clearly felt comfortable enough on his right to have his campaign tout the deal as an impressive accomplishment, which it did in a fundraising letter within hours of the measure’s passage. In the letter, Benton called McConnell “a special leader” who “has ensured that your taxes will not go up [and] has taken the threat of income tax hikes off the table for debt-limit negotiations. Now, President Obama and his allies will not be able to threaten every American with higher taxes as we fight for spending restraint and entitlement reform.” He added that McConnell “will be as rock solid and resolute in that fight as he was in protecting our paychecks.”

With his eye on the general election, in which his words from 2009 about defeating President Obama being his No. 1 priority will surely appear in more than one commercial, McConnell is now poised to play a central role in a Republican push for reforms to Medicare and/or Social Security when the time comes to raise the debt ceiling (just more than a month from now). The crafty negotiator hopes to get his fingerprints on some kind of grand bargain he can take credit for next year on the campaign trail. 

Meanwhile, there is a good chance Paul will vote against whatever debt-ceiling deal McConnell strikes, as he continues to position himself for a presidential run. But getting there will require the help of his new friend Mitch McConnell, who will be happy to provide it. Memories of McConnell backing Secretary of State Trey Grayson, whom Paul defeated in the 2010 primary, are all but forgotten now. 

So as credit rating agencies threaten another downgrade, Corporate America quakes at the willingness to default among House Republicans, and House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama continue declaring they are finished talking to one another, there is actually hope for a deal. Thanks to the senators from the Bluegrass State.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.