Mitch McConnell defends deal, slams Obamacare tactics
By: Manu Raju
October 17, 2013 03:50 PM EDT
At the end of the day, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says he had no good option in the 16-day government shutdown fight.
House Speaker John Boehner’s strategy collapsed. Ted Cruz’s push to use a shutdown to defund Obamacare was “not a smart play” and a “tactical error,” he said. And the country was staring at the threat of a prolonged shutdown and a potentially disastrous default on a nearly $17 trillion national debt.
Using a football analogy, McConnell said he got the ball on his own two-yard-line with a “shaky” offensive line and had to cut a last-ditch deal with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to end the crisis, no matter how unappealing to many in his party. Despite acting as a chief deal-maker in recent years during government crises, it was unclear the role McConnell would play until the final days of the bitter fight.
“Given the card I was dealt at that point, what I had hoped to have achieved was to punt the ball to a better place on the field without raising taxes or busting the [spending] caps,” McConnell told POLITICO in a phone interview Thursday.
“We got off track with a tactical error earlier starting in July and August that diverted our attention away from what was achievable,” McConnell said bluntly of the defund Obamacare push. “And so we’ll be back at it in January and February, which is why the best you can say is, ‘It’s a punt.’”
Asked about Cruz’s contention Wednesday that had 46 Republican senators remained united they would have won the fight, McConnell said: “It’s pretty clear that 54 is more than 46 and the president of the United States thinks [Obamacare is] his greatest accomplishment.”
“It was not a smart play. It had no chance of success,” McConnell said of the defund Obamacare push.
In the interview, McConnell said his ability to cut a deal wasn’t hamstrung by his campaign; argued he would dig-in to ensure the next fiscal fight didn’t exceed the spending limits set forth in the 2011 Budget Control Act; and stated bluntly that shutting down the government won’t change Obamacare if Democrats continue to control the Senate and White House.
As a leader of the party experiencing historic lows in the polls, with tea party activists unhappy with his deal and as he faces a potentially tough Democratic opponent in a state where he’s still unpopular, the shutdown fight could still haunt McConnell next year.
But McConnell insisted any political pain for the GOP will be “short-term.” And he took a whack at his Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, saying there was “no chance” a freshman senator could craft the same kind of bargain the two leaders reached to bring an end to the shutdown and lifted the debt ceiling.
McConnell’s handling of the fiscal crisis underscores the tricky political position he constantly found himself in throughout this fight: He couldn’t be seen as undercutting the conservatives in the House, even as he opposed their strategy of using the shutdown as leverage to defund Obamacare.
Asked if the deal would hurt his chances in a primary against conservative businessman Matt Bevin, McConnell declined to comment on his primary. But he offered up a stinging analysis of his Democratic opponent, Grimes.
“What happened yesterday completely steps on the whole rationale for her candidacy, which is that somehow I’m part of what she calls the dysfunction in Washington,” McConnell said. “Look, I demonstrated on four occasions — including yesterday the most recent occasion, yesterday — that when the country is in crisis and something needs to be done on a bipartisan basis, I can step forward and get an agreement.”
Grimes, McConnell said, has had a “pretty bad 24 hours.”
Grimes has tried to make the case that McConnell is too politically motivated to lead in Washington, instead only worried about his reelection at the expense of the country, saying he “hid in the shadows.”
“Sen. McConnell is taking credit for one of the greatest embarrassments in our nation’s history,” said Grimes senior adviser Jonathan Hurst. “It is like an arsonist congratulating himself for putting out the fire he helped start.”
Grimes declined several interview requests this week on McConnell.
The final deal reached between McConnell and Reid includes virtually none of the demands that House Republicans made at the onset of the fight — and little for even Senate conservatives, 18 of whom voted against it. While it passed easily in both chambers Wednesday night, Democrats were united behind the deal, while the GOP was split.
It only makes minor changes to Obamacare. It raises the debt ceiling until Feb. 7, and allows the Treasury Department to extend that deadline if it employs “extraordinary measures.” It doesn’t make large-scale budget cuts, instead calling on a House-Senate conference committee to try to reach such an elusive deal by Dec. 13. And it doesn’t lock-in lower $967-billion spending levels in 2014 called for by the 2011 Budget Control Act, instead punting that fight until Jan. 15, the next time government funding lapses.
Some conservative groups are already accusing McConnell of surrendering, and he’s being attacked for seeking a carve-out for a Kentucky lock-and-dam project, though he vigorously defends that as a money-saving program that was sought by two other senators.
Bevin said in a video released by his campaign Thursday that McConnell has “cut and run from yet another fight. Making deals with Washington Democrats like Harry Reid to raise the debt limit without consideration for defunding or even delaying Obamacare.”
To his critics, McConnell seemed too worried about stepping into the fight until the very end, when the polls showed that his party was getting slammed for the shutdown. He didn’t offer sharp public rebukes on Cruz’s strategy until late September. He didn’t appear publicly with Boehner after a White House meeting with congressional leaders. And he didn’t talk to Reid until late in the process.
McConnell argued it was natural for him to take a backseat role to Boehner, who controls a House majority, while he controls a Senate minority. But when Boehner couldn’t pass legislation, he had to step up to cut a deal.
McConnell said it was a “false narrative” to suggest he was “hiding out.”
“The reason why I ended up having to play the prominent role that I did was the same reason I had to in December 2010 and August 2011 and December of 2012 and again yesterday was the House could not send something over,” McConnell said. “It was between the speaker and the Democrats until the House couldn’t send anything.
With McConnell’s emergence as a deal-cutter in this latest dispute, Democratic leaders, including Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), have been full of praise for McConnell in the last couple days. Durbin said McConnell is the lone Republican who Democrats can count on in high-stakes talks.
“He has been a very positive force in these negotiations,” Durbin said.