Auto bailout's defeat stings in Ky.

McConnell's role in killing legislation draws ire and praise

jcheves@herald-leader.comDecember 13, 2008 

Although free-market conservatives praised the move, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell angered some Kentuckians by leading the opposition Thursday to the $14 billion congressional bailout for American automakers.

McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, represents a state with four major auto plants and an estimated 86,000 jobs at risk if the automakers fail, from blue-collar factory workers to wealthy car dealers who have poured tens of thousands of dollars into McConnell's campaigns.

On Friday, General Motors announced that because of reduced demand, it will idle its Corvette plant in Bowling Green — and nearly two dozen other GM factories across North America — during the first quarter of 2009. About 900 people work at the Bowling Green plant.

McConnell "is lucky he got re-elected last month, because he just soured some of his supporters," said Don Dugi, political scientist at Transylvania University in Lexington.

"That's the advantage of being a United States senator," Dugi added. "You have six years for everyone to forget what you did to them."

McConnell — and Jim Bunning, Kentucky's GOP junior senator — opposed the bailout, arguing that the federal government should not get involved in trying to salvage a collapsing industry.

"We simply cannot ask the American taxpayer to subsidize failure," McConnell said in Washington. In particular, he faulted the unionized auto workers for not accepting immediate wage cuts.

However, critics back home noted that McConnell has supported hundreds of billions of dollars in government aid for failing banks and other financial institutions. Bunning, on the other hand, has consistently opposed all bailout efforts.

"The Senate passed a huge $700 billion bailout for Wall Street with very few strings attached, but not for the blue-collar workers," Bowling Green Mayor Elaine Walker said.

With her city's GM plant in mind, Walker went to Washington on Tuesday to personally urge Kentucky's senators to vote "aye."

"I spoke with Bunning, and you knew right up front that he would not support it," she said. "McConnell was going to be the key player in whether this would get through. And he certainly was."

In Frankfort, Gov. Steve Beshear said he was "disappointed" by the Senate vote, and he had hoped McConnell and Bunning would be willing to compromise. State Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, a close McConnell ally, said he did not want to discuss the auto bailout.

Mike Wallace, sales manager for Jeff Jones Chevrolet in Versailles, said he was "really disappointed" by McCon nell, but added: "There is a lot of politics being played right now."

If Congress had endorsed the aid package, that would have sent an optimistic message to consumers at a critical time, Wallace said.

"People just aren't willing to spend their money for a product that has an uncertain future," Wallace said.

While some in the auto industry said they had expected McConnell's support, other observers said nobody should have been surprised when he balked.

Ted Jackson, a Republican political consultant in Louisville, said the obvious conservative vote Thursday was against government intervention in business.

"Sen. McConnell did this even though the political ramifications of it are not yet clear," Jackson said. "I think that's admirable."

There are plenty of conservative Kentuckians fired up about the financial-sector bailouts, which they saw as public money being squandered with no obvious benefit to the economy, said Western Kentucky University political scientist Scott Lasley in Bowling Green.

From their perspective, McConnell was wrong on the first bailout but right this week, Lasley said.

"You cannot underestimate the Republican base voters who are angry, who are frustrated. They see all this as companies that basically drove themselves into the ground and are now getting our money," Lasley said.

As for McConnell emerging as chief obstructionist to the Democratic Congress — and soon, to Democratic President-elect Barack Obama — that's exactly what McCon nell promised to do as Senate minority leader when he campaigned this year, Lasley added.

"He's proud of his ability to either block or at least change legislation so it's more to his liking," Lasley said.

Staff writers Jack Brammer and Jim Jordan contributed to this report.

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