McConnell flexes reelection muscle with $1B gift for Kentucky

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOn The Money: Trump administration releases PPP loan data | Congress gears up for battle over expiring unemployment benefits | McConnell opens door to direct payments in next coronavirus bill Trump renews culture war, putting GOP on edge The Hill's Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Reid Wilson says political winners are governors who listened to scientists and public health experts; 12 states record new highs for seven-day case averages MORE (R-Ky.) is delivering more than $1 billion worth of federal spending and tax breaks to his Kentucky constituents, just in time for Christmas and ahead of a potentially tough reelection campaign. 

McConnell’s biggest obstacle to getting the deal done was not Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHouse Democrats seek to use spending bill to remove Confederate statues from Capitol West Virginia governor issues order for wearing face coverings indoors The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Supreme Court's unanimous decision on the Electoral College MORE (D-Calif.) or Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerRussian bounties revive Trump-GOP foreign policy divide Public awareness campaigns will protect the public during COVID-19 Republicans fear backlash over Trump's threatened veto on Confederate names MORE (D-N.Y.), but President TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN's Anderson Cooper: Trump's Bubba Wallace tweet was 'racist, just plain and simple' Beats by Dre announces deal with Bubba Wallace, defends him after Trump remarks Overnight Defense: DOD reportedly eyeing Confederate flag ban | House military spending bill blocks wall funding MORE, who proclaimed last year that he was not going to sign another omnibus spending bill and whose White House made rumblings about backing a year-end spending freeze instead.

But McConnell, who is running for his seventh Senate term next year, flexed his political muscle to secure $914.2 million in direct spending for Kentucky in the two year-end omnibus spending bills. The windfall will likely boost his political standing at home in the face of a well-financed Democratic opponent and his perennially low approval ratings.

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McConnell touted his spending and tax-relief accomplishments at a press conference in Louisville, and drew a sharp contrast with his Democratic opponent, Amy McGrath, a retired Marine Corps fighter pilot who raised nearly $11 million in the third quarter this year for the 2020 race.

Noting that he’s the only top congressional leader who isn’t from California or New York, McConnell emphasized he was one of four people in the room making final decisions about specifics on the year-end spending and tax deals.

The GOP leader argued that his presence at the high-level talks gave Kentucky “an advantage to punch above its weight.” 

“I saw a commercial from my likely opponent indicating that I was all that was wrong with Washington. So I have a question for her here as we go into the new year: In what way would Kentucky have been better off without any of these items that I put in the year-end spending bill?” McConnell said.

It's a powerful argument from a politician who registers a 37 percent approval rating at home, according to a Morning Consult poll from the third quarter. 

"He's never had a great level of personal popularity so it's been important for him to deliver for the state, and he does a good job of doing that," said Al Cross, a journalism professor at the University of Kentucky and a longtime commentator on state politics. 

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Cross said McGrath has enough fundraising prowess to match McConnell on the airwaves next year and noted the GOP leader "never takes anything for granted."

McConnell's wins in the spending legislation included coal miners’ pension benefits; $410 million for the construction of the new Robley Rex Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Louisville; $314 million for cleanup of Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, a $40 million increase over last year’s funding level; a tax break for spirits distillers worth an estimated $426 million in 2020 alone; and $65 million for the construction of the Forage Animal Production Lab at the University of Kentucky.

“I was directly responsible — directly responsible — for these items,” McConnell declared at the press conference.

He also secured a tax break for Kentucky’s thoroughbred horse racing industry, $16.5 million for the Department of Agriculture to implement the pro-hemp provisions McConnell got into the 2018 farm bill and $61.3 million for new military construction projects at Fort Campbell. 

Steve Ellis, who tracks federal spending bills as executive vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said that while spending items that go directly to Kentucky total $914.2 million, the amount is “easily going to exceed a billion dollars” when factoring in items that benefit other states in addition to Kentucky.

Bourbon whiskey, thoroughbreds and hemp aren’t exclusive to Kentucky, but they are some of the state’s signature industries. 

Ellis noted the tax-relief provision allowing for three-year-old thoroughbred horses was not in the House spending legislation.

“It is something that he clearly wanted because it was not in the House package and then got added in and is something that has been his pet initiative,” he said.

“It’s clear Sen. McConnell took advantage of the push to get the bill through to grab all the cash he possibly can for the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” Ellis added. “It’s Santa Mitch delivering the baubles for Kentuckians.” 

But those provisions were far from certain as recently as November.

The GOP fought to avoid a possible yearlong continuing resolution, which would have prevented McConnell from adding special provisions for his home state, by initiating spending talks with Trump and Pelosi back in April. 

The spending deal was later stalled for months and appeared in doubt until the final moment, as Democrats refused to negotiate while the issue of funding for Trump’s border wall remained unresolved, and the president was distracted by impeachment in the House.

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In the end, Trump settled for keeping border-barrier funding at $1.375 billion. He was also dealt a setback earlier this month when a federal judge blocked his plan to use $3.6 billion in military funding for border-barrier construction. 

McConnell said the spending talks were “difficult” because he and the other three leaders — Pelosi, Schumer and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyOn The Money: Breaking down the June jobs report | The biggest threats facing the recovery | What will the next stimulus bill include? McCarthy to offer bill withholding funds from states that don't protect statues McCarthy calls on Pelosi to condemn 'mob violence' after toppling of St. Junipero Serra statue MORE (R-Calif.) — have “veto power” over what’s in the bill.

“I think it ended very, very well, particularly given all the contentious things going on right now,” he said, a reference to impeachment.

Congressional leaders broke the spending package into two bills so Trump could live by the letter — if not the spirit — of his pledge not to sign another massive omnibus into law. 

But the size of the spending package left several Senate conservatives fuming.

“Christmas came early in Washington,” Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGianforte halts in-person campaigning after wife, running mate attend event with Guilfoyle Trump administration grants funding extension for Texas testing sites Hillicon Valley: Democrats introduce bill banning federal government use of facial recognition tech | House lawmakers roll out legislation to establish national cyber director | Top federal IT official to step down MORE (R-Texas) quipped in a Twitter video blasting the legislation.

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"While you were with your family, while you were shopping for Christmas, the lobbyists were spending and spending. I present to you, the massive omnibus bill that Congress is voting on," he said.

McConnell predicted in April that he would likely take heat from the right for the spending bill. But he didn’t seem to mind. 

“The only way we can, in a divided government, get a rational spending-cap bill is in the political center,” he told reporters at the time about his upcoming spending negotiations with Pelosi.

“Her most liberal members probably won’t vote for it, many of my conservative members won’t vote for it. But we have to do it because the country will suffer either through a [continuing resolution] or, even worse, a sequester if we don’t do it,” he said.