On paper at least, House Speaker John Boehner is the most important Republican in the country. He’s second-in-line to succeed the president of the United States and the taskmaster for a House Republican majority that’s determined to quash Obama’s agenda.
Yet in the wake of his politically disastrous handing of the fiscal cliff crisis last week, the affable Ohio Republican may have ceded the mantle of leadership to Mitch McConnell, the taciturn, 70-year-old dealmaker and leader of the Senate GOP minority.
It was the crafty Kentuckian who for the second time in two years came off the bench to hammer out a fiscal deal with Vice President Joe Biden—averting for the moment a serious blow to the economy.
While Boehner retreated to the sidelines to sulk after his troops rebelled against his own “Plan B,” McConnell recruited his former Senate colleague Biden to enter the fray four days before the New Year’s Day deadline. The Senate deal let Republicans escape Democratic attacks that the party would sacrifice the middle class in defense of millionaires. It raises taxes on incomes over $400,000, patches the Alternative Minimum Tax and postpones deep spending cuts in defense and domestic programs for at least two more months while Congress and the administration begin another round of talks on spending, entitlement reform and the debt ceiling.
“He thinks eight moves ahead,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., says of his long time friend McConnell. “We play checkers, he plays chess.”
McConnell, a one-time county executive who first won election to the Senate in 1984, did not rest on his laurels. He faces re-election in 2014—and anything that could be considered a tax increase would invite well-funded Tea Party opponents to enter the Republican primary.
After the Senate’s 89 to 8 vote in favor of the deal in the early hours of last Monday morning, McConnell dubbed the compromise “an imperfect solution” that nonetheless spared 99 percent of Americans a tax hike in the New Year. He resolved to address the need to increase the nation’s $16.4 trillion debt ceiling with deficit reduction.
“Now it’s time to get serious about reducing Washington’s out-of-control spending,” he said. “That’s a debate the American people want. It’s the debate we’ll have next. And it’s a debate Republicans are ready for.”
Or at least, a debate that McConnell is prepared to start. He is now in a much stronger position to shape negotiations than the wounded Boehner, who recently signaled he would no longer engage in one-on-one talks with President Obama, which repeatedly have gotten him into trouble with his party’s conservative wing. While McConnell himself acknowledges that last week’s eleventh hour compromise wasn’t a workable model for talks going forward on vital budget and debt issues, his entrée with the West Wing has improved.
Watch Mitch McConnell announce the deal on the "fiscal cliff."
McConnell is coming off a disappointing Republican showing in the 2012 Senate races, losing two seats after bold predictions the GOP would regain control of the upper chamber. But he commands far more allegiance among his conference than Boehner enjoys in the House. And in the case of Senate race losses, the extremism of some of the Tea Party candidates like Missouri’s Todd Akin and Indiana’s Richard Mourdock cost the party seats that should have been easy pickups.