Senator Gridlock Rides to the Rescue, and Possibly Reelection

McConnell’s role as a negotiator undercuts the Democrats’ primary argument against him.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 14: (L-R) U.S. Senate Minority Whip Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) walk from McConnell's office to the Senate Chamber on October 14, 2013 in Washington, DC. As Democratic and Republican leaders negotiate an end to the shutdown and a way to raise the debt limit, the White House postponed a planned Monday afternoon meeting with Boehner and other Congressional leaders. The government shutdown is currently in its 14th day. 
National Journal
Jill Lawrence
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Jill Lawrence
Oct. 15, 2013, 6:17 a.m.

Mitch Mc­Con­nell’s late-break­ing emer­gence at the cen­ter of ne­go­ti­ations to stave off de­fault and re­open the gov­ern­ment is mak­ing life more com­plic­ated for the Demo­crat who wants to oust him.

Ken­tucky Sec­ret­ary of State Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes routinely refers to Mc­Con­nell as Sen­at­or Grid­lock and Demo­crats say she does not in­tend to stop. Her aides were us­ing the derog­at­ory nick­name even as Mc­Con­nell and Harry Re­id were deep in­to dis­cus­sions of how to bring the coun­try back from the brink.

Mc­Con­nell broke last month with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s cru­sade to de­fund Obama­care — the Af­ford­able Care Act — in a bill to keep the rest of the gov­ern­ment run­ning. That and his talks with Re­id make him seem, at least for the mo­ment, like a prag­mat­ist amid the tea party ab­so­lut­ists on the right. The moves also re­flect his re­l­at­ive free­dom to op­er­ate as he sees fit.

While Mc­Con­nell has a tea party primary chal­lenger, Louis­ville busi­ness­man Matt Bev­in, two polls last sum­mer showed he had three times as much sup­port as Bev­in. He is not act­ing like a wor­ried man, nor does he need to. “I don’t think Matt Bev­in is even the slight­est blip on the radar screen. He has ab­so­lutely no clue how to run a cam­paign,” says Re­pub­lic­an Marc Wilson, a Ken­tucky-based strategist-turned-lob­by­ist.

That’s one reas­on. The oth­er is the an­ger and frus­tra­tion of people af­fected by the shut­down or simply fed up with the stale­mate in Wash­ing­ton. “There’s no doubt there’s a polit­ic­al up­side for be­ing part of the solu­tion,” says a strategist close to the Mc­Con­nell cam­paign. “Vir­tu­ally every Amer­ic­an sees the prob­lem as a cata­strophe.”

The up sides are many, in fact. Mc­Con­nell po­s­i­tions him­self as a con­struct­ive force for the gen­er­al elec­tion cam­paign next year against Grimes, and gains a talk­ing point he can use every time she calls him Sen­at­or Grid­lock. He helps put an end to an epis­ode that has been ter­ribly de­struct­ive to his party —with polls show­ing that three-quar­ters of the coun­try dis­ap­proves of the way the GOP has been hand­ling the budget crisis. And he gets cred­it for be­ing ra­tion­al about what his minor­ity party can and can’t achieve when the Sen­ate and White House are in Demo­crat­ic hands.

The Grimes camp says Mc­Con­nell has a long his­tory of ob­struc­tion­ism in the Sen­ate that has worked against Ken­tucky’s in­terests. The cam­paign is­sued a state­ment this week sug­gest­ing that “Sen­at­or Grid­lock hopes to swoop in for a last-minute back­room deal” be­cause the mar­kets are slid­ing in an­ti­cip­a­tion of de­fault and “Mc­Con­nell be­lieves his own fin­ances will be im­pacted.”

It isn’t the first time Mc­Con­nell has swooped in. The 2012 fisc­al cliff, the 2011 Budget Con­trol Act, the tax deal of 2010 — whenev­er po­lar­iz­a­tion threatens to de­rail the eco­nomy and re­la­tions between the two parties, Mc­Con­nell is in the thick of ne­go­ti­ations. Josh Holmes, a seni­or ad­viser to Mc­Con­nell’s cam­paign, says “Sen­at­or Grid­lock” is a ca­ri­ca­ture that doesn’t hold up. “Vir­tu­ally every time we’ve come to an eco­nom­ic stand­still be­cause of fail­ure in Wash­ing­ton, you’ve got Sen. Mc­Con­nell work­ing with both sides to fix it,” he says.

And yet, Mc­Con­nell has a his­tory of ob­struct­ing Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion ini­ti­at­ives and even the nor­mal work­ings of gov­ern­ment. For in­stance, Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans have for six months blocked re­peated Demo­crat­ic at­tempts to hold budget ne­go­ti­ations with the House — talks that might have aver­ted the shut­down. “He’s used par­tis­an­ship and the fili­buster more spe­cific­ally to bring Wash­ing­ton to a grind­ing halt and cre­ate the type of cul­ture and cir­cum­stances that led to this mess,” says Matt Canter, a spokes­man for the Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee. He says that ar­gu­ment re­mains “sa­li­ent, power­ful and ac­cur­ate.”

But Mc­Con­nell will have an equally power­ful counter-ar­gu­ment now that the debt ceil­ing and shut­down crises have con­verged and he is once again com­ing to the res­cue.

If that re­calls the pro­ver­bi­al man who killed his par­ents then begged the court for mercy be­cause he was an orphan, well, maybe so. But that doesn’t make it any easi­er for Grimes. Mc­Con­nell is sound­ing like the voice of reas­on these days in a party that has con­trol of one half of one-third of the gov­ern­ment, and a few dozen people who be­lieve that’s a man­date.

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