Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has succeeded in aligning Senate Republicans against President Obama’s agenda, but he has also engendered angst among Republican senators who bristle at following the party line. Such concerns won’t threaten McConnell’s position as leader, but they complicate his work and could weaken Republicans’ electoral chances by fueling Democrats’ efforts to paint them as obstructionists.
One of the most disenchanted GOP senators, prior to his 2010 retirement, was George Voinovich of Ohio. Now teaching in his home state, where he had been governor and mayor of Cleveland, Voinovich blasted McConnell and other GOP leaders, accusing them of avoiding big bipartisan deals out of concern they would help Obama politically.
“There are Republicans, including some leaders, that really don’t want to get anything done at this stage of the game because they think it might accrue to the president’s benefit,” Voinovich told National Journal last week. “Their main goal is to beat the president.”
A self-described deficit hawk, Voinovich said he was particularly upset by McConnell’s 2010 opposition to legislation he backed creating a deficit-reduction commission. Pressured by GOP leadership, Republican cosponsors of the measure voted against it on the Senate floor, and the measure failed. Obama eventually created the Simpson-Bowles commission by executive order.
Sharpening criticism he issued at the time, Voinovich said McConnell opposed creating the panel because “that might look good and help the president.”
Voinovich faulted Obama’s failure “to exercise leadership” on deficit reduction. But he said Senate Republican leaders’ reluctance to let the president claim a budget victory was the main reason Congress did not reach a “grand bargain” cutting the deficit more significantly than last summer’s Budget Control Act.
The failure is “more on the Republican side than on the Democratic side,” he said, arguing Obama was prepared to cut a sweeping deal. “I think my party made a big mistake.... All they have to do is have the guts to stand up and do it.”
“Mitch is a very smart guy, he’s a great strategist, but I think it’s time right now to put the country ahead of party,” Voinovich said.
Voinovich, who supports Mitt Romney’s presidential bid, argued Republican refusal to compromise has handed Obama an issue he may use to win a tough reelection fight. “If Democrats can tag Republicans with this, that they are more interested in beating the president than in doing what is right for the country, we have a problem in November,” he said.
McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said the Republican leader had worked to cut a major deficit deal with Democrats and helped craft the Budget Control Act, which imposes cuts of more than $2 trillion over 10 years. A senior GOP aide noted McConnell had personally pushed Obama for a deal cutting entitlement spending.
Other Republican aides disputed Voinovich’s views but acknowledged frustrations among many GOP senators who feel their efforts at bipartisan policy work have been clipped by a partisan atmosphere to which their leadership contributes.
“Members are just generally unhappy about a lot of things and they just blame it on people they can blame it on, and that is people at the top,” a senior GOP aide said. “That doesn’t mean that there is not angst and irritation with leadership, but I think it is to be expected.”
In September, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., announced he would step down from Senate Republican leadership to “liberate” himself to work on serious issues and to do so across the aisle. Alexander, a McConnell confidante, offered no direct criticism, but his reasoning indicated he saw leadership as an obstacle to policy work.
Republican unrest rose in recent months over GOP leaders’ support for extension of a reduced payroll-tax rate. While McConnell described his position as a necessary political concession, much of the party’s rank and file opposed the tax cut on policy grounds. In late November, McConnell predicted his conference would support his plan. In a Dec. 1 vote, GOP senators overwhelmingly opposed the measure, in a rare rebuke of their leadership.
When the Senate passed a two-month payroll bill on Dec. 17, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., ripped the move in an unusually direct shot at leadership.
“Unfortunately, both parties believe their most important priority should be making decisions that help them keep or attain the majority instead of doing the difficult things we know have to happen to get our country back on firm footing,” Corker said at the time.
Such sentiments do not so far represent a revolt against Senate GOP leadership, but for a conference bracing for a Democratic portrayal of them as obstructionist, they are an ominous sign.
This article appears in the January 17, 2012, edition of NJ Daily.