WASHINGTON — Day after day in the last month, Mitch McConnell’s angry words, aimed squarely at Democrats and their “hard left” constituency, pierced the congressional calm.
The Senate Republican leader’s daily blasts at Democrats on the Senate floor contrast sharply with the let’s-get-along attitude that’s wafted through the Capitol since Election Day. While House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has publicly preached cooperation, McConnell plays bulldog.
Part of his hard charge may be a concession to 2014, when he’s up for re-election in a state where he might fear a tea party primary challenge if he’s not forceful enough standing up to a Democratic president who didn’t do well in Kentucky. Part of his style also is standard for savvy insiders such as McConnell: Talk and act tough but be willing to cut a deal at the right time.
McConnell says he remains eager for a compromise on avoiding the “fiscal cliff,” including new tax revenues. He met Thursday with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and he said he’d back capping income-tax deductions for the wealthy. Geithner offered a $1.6 trillion, 10-year revenue package that included higher rates for the wealthy, and he proposed $50 billion in new spending in one year. McConnell seemed disgusted.
“All we hear from them is raising taxes, and I think they’re going to get even more spending here at the end of the year,” McConnell said in an interview Thursday in his Capitol Hill office. “The secretary of the treasury came here today with what only could be characterized as an unserious proposal.”
To him, the Geithner visit was part of a pattern. “Here’s the picture,” McConnell said. “The president is out continuing to campaign, the secretary of the treasury is coming in here and making completely unrealistic proposals and the majority leader is out trying to blow the Senate up at a time when we ought to be trying to narrow our differences and come together and do something important for the country.
“It’s mind-boggling. It’s hard to understand, but they obviously still want to celebrate the election.”
McConnell insists he hasn’t changed his tone.
“I’m just stating what I read in the paper. They’re having all the hard left down at the White House and promising them they won’t do anything about entitlements,” he said, referring to President Barack Obama’s meeting recently with liberal groups and his reluctance to make major changes in Medicare and Social Security.
But Kentucky analysts see his eye squarely on the 2014 election, when the 70-year-old five-term veteran plans to seek another term. .
The numbers suggest that he’d have little trouble. Obama carried only four of Kentucky’s 120 counties, though Democrats outnumber Republicans in the state by 1.66 million to 1.15 million.
“It will not politically hurt McConnell’s re-election efforts at all in Kentucky if he does not compromise with President Obama on the fiscal cliff issue,” said Danny Briscoe, a Democratic consultant in the state.
McConnell’s biggest concern is probably his own party. No major Democrat is likely to challenge him, but in 2010 the more conservative Rand Paul trounced McConnell’s handpicked choice for the state’s other Senate seat, Secretary of State Trey Grayson, in the party primary.
McConnell said 2014 wasn’t foremost on his mind. “I don’t want to be overly confident here. I don’t own my seat,” he said. “My only concern right now is not what might happen in 2014 but what might happen in the next three or four weeks.”
Asked whether he’s running, he lets out a big smile. “I’m running. Read my lips, I’m running,” he said. And he’s embraced Paul, even hiring Jesse Benton, who ran the presidential campaign this year of Paul’s father, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, to run the 2014 re-election effort.
Some Democrats in the state see a man reinventing himself to ward off a challenge from the right.
“Mitch McConnell is lizard-like. He can change his colors to match his surroundings,” said Dale Emmons, a Democratic consultant in Kentucky.
McConnell is unfailingly taciturn, and won’t talk about the roots of any fresh frustration. For years, though, he had his eye on gaining a Senate majority and having a Republican win the White House in the 2012 election.
In October 2010, he sparked Democratic fury when he told the National Journal: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Democrats would not let the quote die, citing Republican tactics as stemming from McConnell’s “goal.”
McConnell had reason for optimism heading into this year’s elections. Obama’s re-election bid seemed shaky, and of the 33 Senate seats up for re-election, 23 were controlled by Democrats. Instead, Democrats scored a net gain of two Senate seats. That meant McConnell has another task, doing what leaders of minorities historically do: make themselves heard, loudly.
He’s not convincing some skeptics. Many conservatives have long been wary of McConnell, saying he’s been too eager over the years to cut deals with Democrats.
They’re still upset that the deal that ended last year’s struggle over the national debt limit had its roots in McConnell’s proposal to raise the limit in three stages.
“He helped write that debt deal with Sen. Reid, and it resulted in very few spending cuts and no structural changes to entitlements,” said Barney Keller, the communications director at the conservative Club for Growth, speaking of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Other conservatives are more sympathetic. They like how McConnell engaged in an unusual, at times angry debate with Reid this week over Reid’s effort to change Senate rules to make it easier to cut off debate.
“What do you expect McConnell to do? I expect him to go all the way and fight,” said Tripp Baird, the director of Senate relations at Heritage Action for America, a conservative group. Baird was a top aide to former Senate Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi.
Behind the scenes, fiscal cliff discussions are continuing, and McConnell has a history of making deals. He talked Thursday about his proposals to revamp Medicare, perhaps by having the wealthy pay more or implementing a higher retirement age. He won’t rule out higher taxes on the wealthy.
“First and foremost, Sen. McConnell realizes that he is Kentucky’s senator. That’s where he starts in all of his political dealings,” said Ted Jackson, a Republican political consultant in Kentucky. “But he knows he also has a national role to fulfill, and I don’t think those two roles are inconsistent for him. He’s a very pragmatic politician.”
Brammer, of the Lexington Herald-Leader, reported from Frankfort, Ky. Email: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @lightmandavid