Saturday, December 29, 2012

A defining moment for Sen. McConnell

By Bob Cusack - 12/29/12 06:00 AM ET

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is facing a defining moment of his career this weekend as he attempts to hammer out a "fiscal-cliff" deal with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Many inside the Washington Beltway believe there is little chance that Reid and McConnell will reach an agreement. Political operatives note that McConnell is up for reelection in 2014, saying that a "no" vote is much safer than being the author of such a controversial bill.

However, there are plenty of reasons why McConnell would want to forge a bipartisan deal. First and foremost, McConnell's hero is former Sen. Henry Clay (Ky.), who is known as the "Great Compromiser." McConnell has claimed that Clay's leadership in crafting legislative compromises in 1820 and 1850 "held the country together." McConnell has touted Clay's "marvelous combination of compromise and principle" as a model for all politicians.

The Senate minority leader also has a long history of deal making. McConnell and Reid reached a pact on the payroll tax cut extension a year ago and he signed off on the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) in 2008. Last week, McConnell expressed support for Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) "Plan B" fiscal-cliff measure, which subsequently imploded amid opposition from liberals and conservatives.

After the GOP captured control of the House and made significant gains in the Senate two years ago, McConnell worked closely with Vice President Biden in the lame-duck session of the last Congress to pass an extension of the Bush tax rates, a nuclear treaty with Russia and the repeal of the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. President Obama called that lame-duck session "the most productive post-election period that we have had in decades."

McConnell has a strong working relationship with Reid, who has until now played a backseat role in the fiscal-cliff talks. While Reid and McConnell regularly joust with one another on the Senate floor, the two leaders respect and like one another.

After it was reported in the book "Game Change" that Reid made racially insensitive remarks, McConnell repeatedly refused to call for the Nevada Democrat to step aside. In 2010, Reid apologized to McConnell on the Senate floor for questioning the GOP leader's integrity.

In many ways, McConnell and Reid are similar. Neither is seen at big parties in the nation's capital; both prefer quiet nights at home watching the Washington Nationals.

There is a sense of history in this weekend's negotiations. Reid and McConnell can prevent the country from going over the cliff, something Obama and Boehner have repeatedly failed to do. The Senate, which has been pushed to the side on the fiscal cliff, now can come to the rescue.

Unlike TARP, which remains unpopular, a fiscal-cliff agreement can be sold back home. Such a bipartisan deal would attract criticism from the left and the right, but McConnell could make the case it helps middle-class families, doctors and defense contractors in Kentucky. (Most expect a final deal to prevent significant cuts to the Pentagon and Medicare's reimbursement to physicians).

Democrats are targeting McConnell in 2014, but he has many things going in his favor. A viable challenger from the left or the right has not yet emerged. There has been widespread speculation actress Ashley Judd might challenge McConnell. However, Judd lives in Tennessee and has made some critical statements on coal that won't serve her well in Kentucky.

Furthermore, McConnell has more than $7 million in his campaign war chest.

And despite the nation's changing demographics, Kentucky is a red state that is not fond of Obama. That won't change in 2014.


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