Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., didn’t waste words.
Silent since Sunday on the payroll tax stare down in Congress, McConnell made it count Thursday when he weighed in with a 176-word statement that helped break the impasse and outline a path for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio to retreat from a politically untenable position.
It proved a decisive, maybe the decisive moment in the standoff over the payroll tax hike that threatened millions of working families and a fragile economy
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., “should appoint conferees on the long-term bill and the House should pass an extension that locks in the thousands of Keystone XL pipeline jobs, prevents any disruption in the payroll tax holiday or other expiring provisions, and allows Congress to work on a solution for the longer extensions,” McConnell said in the operative line of his missive.
Within hours, Boehner won support from his leadership team and the eight conferees he appointed to effectively accept McConnell’s out. That means accepting terms that Reid has offered since Sunday: Reid will take the largely symbolic step of appointing conferees to work on a year-long extension of the existing employee payroll tax rate, an unemployment insurance program and a Medicare reimbursement fix for physicians after the House passes the Senate’s two-month extension.
A Senate GOP leadership aide described McConnell as “giving both the majority leader and the House a path forward.”
A blunter way of putting it is that McConnell gave Boehner a bit of cover, along with a shove, with which to extricate Republicans from a fight neither GOP leader wanted to be in. Boehner rejected the Senate’s two-month extension on Sunday due to a revolt from his conference, not only conservative freshman but leadership members such as Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. McConnell’s public push appeared to help Boehner convince his members to accept the short-term agreement.
Senate aides said McConnell is in regular contact with both Boehner and Reid and checked in with both before issuing his statement Thursday. By contrast, Senate Democratic aides said Boehner and Reid were not in direct contact on Thursday – part of Democrats argument that the House backed down.
Senate GOP leadership aides said that McConnell, throughout the payroll tax fight. has viewed a deal as necessary. He wanted all along to avoid the situation House Republicans stumbled into, in which Republicans offered procedural arguments while Democrats hammered them for supporting a tax increase on 160 million Americans.
McConnell was in Kentucky but nevertheless spent the week in an awkward position. He appeared to want to assist Boehner, if only to help the GOP politically. But he could not join Boehner in attacking the two-month bill which McConnell, after all, negotiated, celebrated and lined up overwhelming Senate Republican support for.
While McConnell himself stayed quiet this week, the chorus of anonymous Senate GOP aides and Republican senators who assailed House Republicans’ stance made the Republican Leader’s view clear.
He now appears to be prevailing in convincing House Republicans to accept a short-term loss of face to avoid the chance of major political damage next if Americans blamed Republicans smaller paychecks.