It goes without saying on Capitol Hill that Mitch McConnell is one of the most deft parliamentarians in Congress. Even if that makes him akin to a Bond villain in your eyes, you can’t deny the fact that he’s a tactical master of the powers available to party leaders in the Senate.
But every now and again, he’s a bit too cocksure, and he makes an error. This past summer, Harry Reid outmaneuvered him, and he allowed a bill to extend the Bush tax cuts for middle-income earners to pass almost by accident. Today, he tried to embarrass Senate Democrats and the White House by calling for a vote on Barack Obama’s plan to allow the President, instead of Congress, to raise the debt ceiling. Well it turns out Democrats were perfectly willing to support that plan, and he ended up having to filibuster his own gambit.
In so doing he nearly dealt away the GOP’s last significant source of leverage over President Obama. If Senate Democrats can, and are allowed, to effectively raise the debt ceiling on their own, without GOP votes, House Republicans will be isolated next year, threatening to wreck the global economy rather than pass a viable Senate Democratic bill to avert a needless, politically motivated disaster.
Now, I think these were clearly unintended outcomes. But it’s worth noting that his mistakes always seem to redound to his benefit in one way or another. The Senate Dems’ middle-income tax bill has provided President Obama a ton of leverage in the ongoing fiscal cliff fight — but it’s leverage over John Boehner. If House Republicans cave, it’s quite likely the whole mess will be cleaned up without a single Senate Republican having voted to effectively raise taxes on wealthy people. No McConnell fingerprints.
The same dynamic could repeat itself if Republicans pick another fight over the debt ceiling. There’s egg on McConnell’s face today. But now he knows that, if it looks like the country’s on the verge of a major economic crisis early next year, he can allow Democrats to raise the debt ceiling on their own, again, no Senate GOP fingerprints, simply by not filibustering.
And if he does, he won’t be the person who bears political recriminations. Boehner will.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.