McConnell may not be that unhappy with failure of supercommittee

habdullah@herald-leader.comNovember 23, 2011 

WASHINGTON — The failure Monday of Congress' supercommittee — the bipartisan panel that was partly the brainchild of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and was supposed to cut at least $1.2 trillion from looming federal deficits — won't likely immediately affect the Kentucky Republican, political experts say.

If anything, the committee's failure handed both Democrats and Republicans a way to blame the other side for an unwillingness to compromise and will trigger a fresh series of partisan clashes over taxes, spending, Social Security and a host of other fiscal matters, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

"Behind the scenes none of them seem particularly upset," Sabato said. "They all say they'll deal with this after the elections. If you could take a private poll of leadership most were relieved the supercommittee came up with nothing...you can't be put on the defensive for painful things they didn't do."

President Barack Obama and the Democrats now get to say Republicans are part of a "do nothing Congress" and are out to protect the rich, and Republicans can say Obama and the Democrats aren't serious about cutting spending, Sabato said.

But each party's ability to assign blame and make it stick in the minds of the electorate could affect McConnell in next year's elections.

"Assuming (the supercommittee's failure) has some impact on the elections of 2012 it will either help make him majority leader or keep him from getting there," Sabato said. "If Obama and the Democrats win with their arguments it's possible they can stave off the Republicans winning the Senate."

For his part, McConnell has always stressed that he saw the supercommittee as a perfect opportunity for bipartisan compromise.

"For those of us who hoped that this committee could make some of the tough decisions President Obama continues to avoid, the Democrats' rejection of not one but two good-faith Republican proposals is deeply disappointing," McConnell said in a statement issued shortly after the committee announced it had failed to reach an agreement. "The good news is that even without an agreement, $1.2 trillion will still be cut from the deficit."

For the better part of a year, McConnell was deeply involved in negotiations in whittling the nation's ballooning debt. As talks dragged on and several high profile and high stakes efforts at compromise failed, McConnell increasingly repeated calls for "bipartisan" cooperation.

McConnell worked to strike a balance between brainstorming those bipartisan solutions and careful 2012 political calculations. The committee's failure triggers about $1 trillion in automatic spending cuts starting in 2013—an idea that was partly cribbed from an earlier debt resolution put forth by McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. The phased-in approach was also borrowed from that previous plan.

Along the way McConnell has weathered blowback from the Tea Party movement — one of the key constituencies McConnell has worked hard to court since the group's support in 2010 helped catapult U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky into office and led to broad gains in the House.

However, the question remains whether the talk of bipartisanship is a serious effort at change and reform or if it is an election season effort of convenience, said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the Cook Political Report.

"If Republicans get the Senate they are not going to get a big number. They could pick up three to six seats. They might end up with 50-50 (split between Democrat- and Republican-held Senate seats. You don't control the Senate without 60 votes," Duffy said. "There's this realization that you might need to have better working relations than they currently do."

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