Is it possible Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t get the memo, or did he simply choose to ignore it? After days of conciliatory post-election talk from House Speaker John Boehner and other Republican leaders, the Kentucky conservative delivered a discordant message to President Obama as Congress returned Tuesday for a crucial post-election session to deal with the fiscal cliff.
“In politics, there is always a temptation among those who win office to think they have a mandate to do what they will,” McConnell said in a floor speech. “But it’s important to remember that in this case the voters also re-elected a Republican-controlled House last week, and a closely divided Senate. And in a government of three equal branches, that’s hardly irrelevant.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., still celebrating his party’s strong showing in the presidential and Senate contests, did his best to try to echo Boehner’s message of bonhomie and cooperation.
“The challenges are too great for our political differences to stand in the way of success,” Reid declared while standing near McConnell’s desk in the otherwise empty Senate chamber at the start of the lame duck session. “It’s time for Democrats and Republicans to go forward together . . . and show the American people we are equal to the challenge we face.”
But the stern-faced McConnell was having none of that. “Look out across the heartland, and you’ll see vast regions of the country wary of the President’s vision for the future,” McConnell said. “The country is sharply divided about the right path forward. Simply saying – as the President has – that he wants a ‘balanced approach’ in which the wealthy pay ‘their fair share,’ is not a plan but tedious, poll-tested talking points”.
McConnell’s message hasn’t varied much since election night last week, when his party suffered a decisive setback in its once promising drive to oust the president and reclaim control of the Senate. Republicans are willing to take their lead from the newly reelected Democratic president, provided that doesn’t require raising tax rates on high income earners, as the president is insisting, but does require deep spending cuts and entitlement reforms than many liberal Democrats and labor groups are attempting to prevent.
“The President needs to lead,” McConnell declared. “And that means offering a concrete plan that takes into account the fact that half the Congress opposes tax hikes. Not because we’re selfish or stubborn. But because we know it’s the wrong thing to do, because we know it will hurt the economy and destroy jobs.”
“This isn’t partisan politics. It’s economics,” he added. “As the President might say, it’s math.”
Last week, Boehner seemingly extended the olive branch to Obama the day after the election: “The American people have spoken. They have re-elected President Obama. And they have again elected a Republican majority in the House of Representatives. If there is a mandate in yesterday’s results, it is a mandate for us to find a way to work together on solutions to the challenges we face together as a nation.”
The substance of his message wasn’t all that different from what McConnell is saying – that the GOP wants the Bush era tax cuts extended for all income groups, including the wealthiest two percent. They claim the increased revenues the president was demanding to help reduce the deficit could be generated through reform of the tax code and elimination of tax deductions and loopholes – and not an increase in rates.
The tone of his message, however, was far more positive than McConnell’s mostly snarly speech yesterday. "We aren't seeking to impose our will on the president,” the speaker said. “We're asking him to make good on his 'balanced' approach."
Only days before McConnell, Reid, Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., are scheduled to sit down with Obama at the White House for the first round of talks on addressing a potential year-end fiscal calamity of massive tax increases and spending cuts, this is what the Kentucky Repubican had to say:
“The campaign is over. The time for slogans and pep rallies is passed. If the President is really serious about solving current crises and avoiding future ones, he has to step up and lead.”
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner indicated yesterday that the administration has no interest in simply extending all the Bush era tax cuts for another year, and advised the Democrats and Republicans to press ahead with negotiations on a new deal before the country starts to head over the fiscal cliff in January. Some corporate executives and Republican lawmakers have asked to basically push “pause” in order to achieve broader tax reforms, a delay that could potentially reduce both the urgency and Democratic post-election leverage in addressing the fiscal cliff.
“I know the cliff is unattractive,” Geithner said at a conference sponsored by the Wall Street Journal. “It would cause a lot of damage and it’s not that complicated to solve. But be careful about those who would extend it; it would leave all the uncertainty on the table.”
McConnell has done little to disguise his contempt for Obama and his advisers, dating back to his Oct. 23, 2010 interview with the National Journal in which he declared, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” He went on to say, “If President Obama does a Clintonian back flip, if he’s willing to meet us halfway on some of the biggest issues, it’s not inappropriate for us to do business with him.”
Yet in the wake of the Senate Republicans’ dismal performance in last Tuesday’s election, in which the Democrats overcame great odds to expand their majority by at least two seats, McConnell appears to be unchastened and unwilling to cut the victorious president any slack.
“I find it odd,” said Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar with the conservative leaning American Enterprise Institute. “If anybody should be back-peddling in some ways, it’s McConnell. First of all, it was much more devastating for Republicans if you look at Senate outcomes in the election than it was for the House. It wasn’t great in the House, but for the Republicans to lose only eight House seats in a year when congressional approval rating is eight to eleven percent, you’re basically okay.”
McConnell’s post-election combativeness seems even stranger in a chamber where at least 40 Republican and Democratic members have been working for months behind the scenes to try to find a budget and tax compromise to avert the fiscal cliff and another debt crisis.
“So you’ve had this underlying move towards cooperation and bipartisanship there, and McConnell presumably is swimming against that tide,” Ornstein said. “Whether this is tactical, I’m just not sure. But it certainly is discordant.”
But the Senate minority leader’s conduct may not be all that mystifying considering that McConnell is up for reelection in 2014 and has to be concerned about a possible primary challenge from the Tea Party if he makes too many concessions to the Democrats in the upcoming negotiations.
“This is what I’ve been worried about ,” said Jim Manley, a Washington consultant and former chief spokesman for Reid, the majority leader. “On the one hand, you have Speaker Boehner who will have to keep looking over his shoulder at the conservatives with Paul Ryan back in the House, and McConnell, who has to be careful he’s not ‘Tea Partied’ in the next election.