Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate Minority Leader, has once again reprised his role as a behind-the-scenes power broker who can step in and save the day when Washington descends into partisan chaos.
It was McConnell and Democratic Vice President Joe Biden who cobbled together the deal, approved by Congress on Tuesday, to avert steep tax hikes for most Americans and draconian spending cuts.
His emergence as the key player had been unexpected, even though it mirrored a similar role he played during the debt-limit debacle in 2011.
In the aftermath of President Obama's re-election victory in November, all eyes were on House Speaker John Boehner and the president, as the two began talks aimed at staving off the "fiscal cliff" that threatened to throw the economy into recession. Whether the country veered off the cliff depended largely upon the relationship between these two men, right?
Fast forward to almost nine hours before the Dec. 31 deadline to resolve the fiscal cliff and it wasn’t Obama who was at the center of the deal-making, but Biden and McConnell. Indeed, on New Year's, in the countdown to the deadline, the president was rallying enthusiastic supporters at the White House where he urged Congress to cut a deal but cracked jokes that irked Capitol Hill Republicans. And Boehner? He was out of sight, having told his fellow House Republicans the day before he literally didn’t know the details of the discussion.
Later on Monday, McConnell took to the Senate floor to announce the deadlock was broken and there was an agreement on which of the Bush-era tax cuts would be allowed to lapse, the most contentious issue in the fiscal cliff. In about 24 hours, the Kentucky Republican worked with Biden to finish what Boehner, Obama and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had failed to do.
McConnell – a master parliamentarian seen by many as more of a tactician than a big thinker -- was the last man standing.
Despite their deep ideological differences, Biden and McConnell have a rapport developed during more than 20 years of serving in the Senate together. They speak the same language. Biden stood before House Democrats on Jan. 1 to explain the deal he brokered, saying “Mitch was sincere and real,” as one House Democrat described it. Biden knows McConnell can deliver on what he offers – he’s an effective vote counter.
"When Mitch says, 'Joe, I have 41 votes,' or 'I have 59 votes,' it is the end of the discussion. You know that's true. He has never once been wrong in what he's told me,” Biden said in 2011 at the McConnell Conference Center in Kentucky.
The debt-limit struggle took a toll on the relationship between Obama and Boehner, which has always been cordial but is marred by mistrust on both sides. So when all of the major players had run out of options, it fell once again to the two former Senate colleagues to cut a deal.
On Sunday, when talks between McConnell and Reid hit a logjam over a Republican demand to slow the costs of entitlements like Social Security through the use of an alternative measure of inflation, McConnell called the vice president. “Clearly, we needed to move in a different direction,” said a Senate Republican aide, who described McConnell’s thinking. “McConnell has an ability to seize on what needs to get done and carry it across the finish line. He’s had success with the vice president in the past.”
The White House certainly hadn’t rushed to get McConnell involved. Obama’s own relationship with McConnell has never been warm and ill feelings have lingered among many White House aides over the Republican Senate leader’s remark to National Journal in 2010 that one of his party’s top goals should be ensuring that Obama would be a “one-term president.”
Biden told House Democrats on New Year's Day that he was sought out, rather than being the one to seek out McConnell, and “that he was a little surprised, in fact,” Illinois Rep. Danny Davis said. McConnell spoke several times by phone to Biden after his initial call, bypassing Reid and other Senate Democrats.
As the details of a tentative deal spilled out on Monday, the last day of 2012, many liberal Democrats were angry, including Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who took to the Senate floor and cited reports that Democrats have “somehow” reached an agreement on tax rates remaining steady for households earning up to $450,000. Harkin said the deal was unfair to the middle class and was a “tough pill to swallow.”
No matter the complaints from Senate Democrats. On Monday afternoon, McConnell walked out onto the Senate floor to say that “Yesterday, after days of inaction, I came to the floor and noted the obvious, which is we needed to act, but I needed a dance partner,” McConnell said. “So I reached out to the vice president in an effort to get things done, and I’m happy to report that the effort has been a successful one.”
By Monday evening, Senate Republicans were saying they were expecting a vote, while it fell to Biden to persuade Democratic Senators to get on board as the clock ticked toward midnight.
Once again, Biden and McConnell were the closers. And McConnell played wall flower throughout, only to ask for–-and get—a dance partner for the final song.