By John Aloysius Farrell
When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced this week that the Obama administration would keep an outdated government uranium plant up and running in Paducah, Ky., it was a big win for the folks back home. It was the Republican's own stimulus program for western Kentucky--employing 1,200 people through the coming year as his state recovers from hard times.
McConnell brushed aside conservative critics--"Sweetheart Deal for Kentucky Uranium Enrichers, Bad Deal for America," reads the headline on the Heritage Foundation's website--and persuaded skeptics. When Energy Secretary Steven Chu criticized the plan as potentially a "big liability" that could end up costing the taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, McConnell met with him in March and helped change his mind. "I'm encouraged that all parties involved were able to come together and agree on a deal," McConnell said in announcing the accord.
As one of the capital's great deal-makers, McConnell has, not surprisingly, secured a plum that, even his allies acknowledge, surely looks, walks, and quacks like an earmark. But what was particularly noteworthy is that the state's tea party darling--Sen. Rand Paul--worked hand in hand with McConnell in pleading with Chu, a right-wing bête noire, for the federal uranium-jobs program.
McConnell's duties have grown more complicated as the handful of senators affiliated with the tea party have entered the chamber. Several more may join them after the November elections, and McConnell may look back fondly, should the voters give him a slim GOP majority to shepherd in November, to those halcyon days when he had the simpler task of choreographing opposition instead of leading the chamber. But Paul's genuflection to reality shows why McConnell should still be able to function as the Senate's premier horse trader when the country approaches the dreaded Fiscal Cliff--a confluence of mandatory budget cuts and expiring tax breaks scheduled to arrive at year's end.
The Republican Party in the Senate is famously moving right, part of a steady march that began four decades ago. Amenable GOP veterans, such as Olympia Snowe of Maine and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, are retiring. Conservative novices, such as Marco Rubio of Florida, have emerged as movement heroes. The tea party tasted blood again this year in the primary defeat of veteran GOP Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana.
"Those who have been willing to work in a bipartisan way are going to be looking over their right shoulder and fearing that the same thing that happened to Lugar will happen to them," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., predicts. McConnell is "ceding the reins to an extreme element in their party."
Such are the Democratic talking points. Schumer and his colleagues hope to stir the kind of worries about right-wing extremism that helped cost the Republicans Senate control in 2010. The tea party candidate who defeated Lugar, Richard Mourdock, gave credence to the Democratic patter by pronouncing that, if elected, he will "never compromise on principle."
But the Senate is not the House. McConnell has more room to maneuver than Speaker John Boehner, who has found it difficult to shoo the chickens of his fluttery caucus. Senators have six-year terms, which give them distance from passing passions. They represent states that have an array of powerful and often-competing interests that need balancing--not a homogenous House district dominated by ideological absolutists. The Senate's prestige drapes a robe of duty upon newcomers. America's business, military, and scientific leaders come calling in the national interest. The chamber's rules give the minority more clout. It is a culture that insists, however awkwardly, on collaboration. "The Founders established the Senate as a place where issues would be resolved through consensus," McConnell said this week.
In the 2010 lame-duck session, and again during last summer's debt crisis, McConnell played the indispensable role of Republican adult, crafting compromises with the Democratic opposition. "He in fact did recognize the country was facing an economic disaster, and he did come forward with a constructive proposal," says James Manley, a former top aide to Senate Democrats. "He did just enough to deliver."
McConnell is backed by a leadership team--Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona, John Thune of South Dakota, John Barrasso of Wyoming, and John Cornyn of Texas--that possesses its own conservative bona fides. This team is pushing back against Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, whose status as tea party kingmaker was shaken when a more moderate long shot defeated his candidate for an open Senate seat in Nebraska this week. And even some of the Senate's most outspoken conservatives--such as Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania--have publicly recognized that additional revenues (i.e., taxes) are needed to save the country from a tide of red ink.
"On issues of broad national importance one party shouldn't be allowed to force its will on the other half of the nation," McConnell said this week, sounding like a man who is ready, and able, to cut a deal. If you don't believe it, ask them in Paducah