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McConnell's Challenge: Deal-Making Without Fingerprints

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate minority leader, may have previewed his below-the-radar approach to future negotiations with Democrats during the recent filibuster fight.
J. Scott Applewhite
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate minority leader, may have previewed his below-the-radar approach to future negotiations with Democrats during the recent filibuster fight.

It appears that it's just a matter of days before it becomes official that Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate's top Republican, will be forced into a primary by a Louisville businessman with Tea Party backing.

The news that Matthew Bevin, owner of a bell-manufacturing company and an investment company executive, intends to soon announce his effort to oust McConnell is interesting because it appears to place McConnell in something of a bind.

As Senate minority leader, McConnell has at times seen his role as negotiating compromises with Democrats to break impasses, something he has done repeatedly in the past two years. Most recently, there was the fiscal cliff deal at the start of the year that McConnell negotiated with Vice President Biden that allowed tax rates to rise on individuals with more than $400,000 in annual taxable income. It was a compromise because President Obama had sought a much lower threshold.

It's that role as a compromiser, however, long part of the unwritten job description of Senate leaders in the majority and minority, that has gotten McConnell in trouble with those conservatives who find any compromise with Democrats anathema. They couldn't care less that McConnell is a fan of fellow Kentuckian Henry Clay, who as an antebellum senator earned the sobriquet The Great Compromiser.

Despite the negative feelings many conservatives have about compromise, there will still be situations that require it. For instance, congressional Republicans will need to negotiate with President Obama and Democratic lawmakers later this year on the debt ceiling and federal budget.

And therein lies the problem for McConnell. How will he be able to compromise without inflaming the already inflamed Tea Party Republicans who support Bevin's expected challenge?

One possibility is that McConnell repeats as many times as possible the scenario that just occurred, with the just concluded negotiations to end the GOP filibuster of seven of Obama's executive branch appointments.

McConnell let Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican, lead those negotiations while the Kentuckian tried to keep his distance, a move that theoretically would allow him to maintain some plausible deniability as he wades into his primary fight. It was a kind of "leading from behind."

Of course, plausible deniability only works when those in the know allow you to keep up the pretense. That didn't work out so well for McConnell in the filibuster fight, since McCain and fellow Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee testily outed McConnell.

Despite that, McCain is apparently still willing to play a similar role in future interparty negotiations. And McConnell, presumably, would still try to stay in the background.

"What other choice is there [for McConnell]?" said Richard A. Baker, who served as the Senate's first official historian between 1975 and 2009 and is co-author of The American Senate. An Insider's History.

"You can sign your death warrant now or sign it later. It's a real tough situation," Baker says.

"In earlier days (the early 1950s) [party] leaders got knocked off because they were viewed as not coming back to the state often enough. They had gone Washington, so to speak. That was the reason that they were vulnerable.

"Now, of course, in the era of instant communications, that's not a problem anymore. [The problem is] being caught between political factions. It's two separate tracks, being the party leader and being the representative of your state in the Senate. And here's the classic example of where those tracks are running at cross purposes. It's a rock and a hard place for sure."

The McConnell described in Baker's book, however, comes across as a shrewd political strategist and tactician. Robert Bennett, a former Republican Senate colleague of McConnell's who was himself knocked out of the Senate by a Tea Party primary challenger, is quoted in Baker's book as calling the Kentuckian "the best political mind" in the chamber.

Which leads Baker to say that if anyone can navigate the treacherous waters facing the Senate minority leader, it's McConnell. "I would put my money on him to do that," he says. "Whether it's possible to do in the scope of larger things we'll know later. But he would be the guy for the challenge."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.