Politics & Government

McConnell takes criticism from both sides back home after compromise role

Reporters followed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Capitol Hill recently.
Reporters followed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Capitol Hill recently. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Statesman, traitor, tap-dancer — Kentucky U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell was tagged with a number of labels Wednesday as his high-profile role in negotiations with Democrats presented a large target for opponents, even as the resulting deal appeared to end the government shutdown and avoid debt default.

After reaching what looked like an agreement to end the Washington stalemate with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, McConnell was pelted from both sides of the political spectrum as challengers and critics sought to deny the senator a chance to portray himself as a savior and a leader in the midst of crippling dysfunction.

When McConnell inserted himself into the role of negotiator on Friday, Republican Matt Bevin and Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes endlessly assailed the senator's move, reaching a fever pitch on Wednesday and revealing the political dangers that come with McConnell's leadership position.

Bevin, who is opposing McConnell in the 2014 U.S. Senate race, told the Herald-Leader that Reid had played McConnell "like a cheap fiddle."

"Frankly, it's embarrassing," Bevin said.

McConnell's team hoped Wednesday that Kentucky's senior senator would be viewed ultimately as prioritizing the country over politics, betting on a long-term goal of winning support for compromising over the short-term blowback from McConnell's critics on his left and right.

While McConnell, in remarks on the Senate floor, promised that repealing Obamacare would continue to be a priority for Republicans, the senator worked to win Republican favor by emphasizing he had kept in place budget cuts mandated through the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), known more commonly as sequestration.

Reid this week, sensing an upper hand, made a play to reverse the cuts in negotiations, and McConnell was eager to claim even a small victory by keeping them in place while promising to do more to cut spending and repeal President Barack Obama's health care law.

"Hopefully, once we've gotten past the drama of the moment, we can get to work on it," McConnell said. "But for now, let's not understate the importance of the BCA, or the importance of the fight to preserve it."

To that end, McConnell enjoyed words of support from Tea Party hero and fellow Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, support that McConnell desperately needed as Bevin and some Tea Party groups blasted what they saw as complete capitulation to Senate Democrats and President Barack Obama.

Even though Paul voted against an amendment containing the compromise plan Wednesday night, he said in a statement that ending the shutdown and avoiding a default "is a good thing."

On Wednesday afternoon, the senator defended McConnell in an interview with Terry Meiners on WHAS radio in Louisville.

"I would say Kentucky's very lucky to have Sen. McConnell," Paul said. "You need somebody who's willing to stand up for Kentucky."

Republican allies of McConnell's noted evidence of support for the Senate minority leader's role, pointing to everything from favorable Washington media coverage to a tweet from Matt Jones, a Democrat and creator of the popular Kentucky Sports Radio.

"Never been a huge Mitch McConnell fan but proud of him today for rising up and helping end this nonsense in Washington," Jones tweeted.

While McConnell aides and allies hoped such views would be shared by all Kentuckians, they were hard to hear among the roar of criticism from Grimes, Bevin and Gov. Steve Beshear.

The campaign of Grimes, Kentucky's secretary of state who seeks the Democratic nomination for Senate, continued its assault on McConnell for what the campaign said was his role in shutting down the government. On Wednesday, a campaign news release said McConnell "hid in the shadows for two weeks."

"Now that he has felt the pressure from both sides of the aisle and finally listened to his constituents, McConnell is attempting to pat himself on the back for finally deciding to do his job," Grimes spokeswoman Charly Norton said in a statement.

Norton argued that "any last-minute deal should not obscure the fact that Sen. McConnell created the shutdown with members of his own party, hurt Kentucky's families, seniors and small businesses and cost the U.S. economy at least $4.8 billion."

Beshear, who has squared off against McConnell and Paul in recent weeks over Kentucky's roll-out of Obama's health care law, called a press conference to lay out the damage Kentucky was enduring because of the shutdown.

After taking indirect swipes at Kentucky's two Republican senators, Beshear offered a sharply back-handed compliment to McConnell for his role in the negotiations.

"Hopefully, we will have a deal today, and if we do, I suppose that we should be thankful that after about three months of being missing in action, that the senator has surfaced here in the last couple days and is participating and is helping to work some deal," Beshear said.

Whether McConnell would sustain lasting damage for his part in the deal was unclear Wednesday, but he should expect little more than criticism in the short term for being associated with a deal that left few pleased, said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky.

"Compromise is never rewarded politically," Voss said. "It's going to hurt more before it stops hurting."

Voss said he thinks Bevin might struggle to gain momentum from the result given McConnell's long conservative record, but he said the shutdown itself helps Grimes undercut the five-term senator's campaign argument that his leadership position benefits Kentucky.

"It certainly leaves the impression that Speaker Boehner and Minority Leader McConnell don't have their party under control — the problem being that political leaders never have their parties under control," Voss said.

But if McConnell can successfully sell himself as a willing compromiser to "middle-of-the-road Kentuckians," Voss said, then Grimes will struggle to define the senator as a thoughtless partisan.

Overall, Voss said McConnell stood to win little and lose much from standing front and center as his party's chief negotiator.

"He's worse off, and he'll have people sniping at him from both sides," Voss said. "The real question is whether he can turn that into appeal with the swing voter in a general election. It's tough."

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