Mitch McConnell Steers Clear Of Trouble On Fiscal Cliff

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell isn’t sticking his neck out this time.

The Kentucky Republican has previously stepped in at the last minute to save House Republicans from themselves in desperate moments like this — during the 2011 debt limit near-crisis and the year-end debacle over extending the payroll tax cut. But now, with the fiscal cliff right around the corner, he’s laying low and steering clear of trouble, eager not to be seen as disrupting any progress but signaling no intention of swooping in to save the day again.“I say I’m a little frustrated because we’ve been asking the President and Democrats to work with us on a bipartisan agreement for months — months,” McConnell said Thursday late afternoon on the Senate floor, lamenting the lack of progress and accusing Democrats of sitting on their hands.

McConnell’s obstacles are greater this time. He faces re-election in 2014, and is answerable to an aggressive, purist conservative establishment that is watching his every move. Any compromise agreeable to President Obama would require tax hikes from current levels, and therefore risks the wrath of deep-pocketed groups like Heritage Action and Club For Growth in a possible primary challenge. Last week those groups scuttled a House GOP fall-back bill to possibly permit tax hikes on millionaires.

Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), squeezed from the left and the right, has been unable to settle on a compromise agreeable to both President Obama and a significant number of his members. And it’s difficult to imagine a deal between them that McConnell and Senate Republicans — who are less ideologically intense than the House GOP — wouldn’t accept.

All together, that diminishes McConnell’s incentive to put his political life on the line and makes it easy for him to sound all the right notes.

“Republicans bent over backwards. We stepped way out of our comfort zone. We wanted an agreement. But we had no takers. The phone never rang. And so now, here we are, five days from the New Year, and we might finally start talking,” McConnell said from the floor. “Last night, I told the President that we’re all happy to look at whatever he proposes. … Members on both sides of the aisle will review it, and then we’ll decide how best to proceed. Hopefully there is still time for an agreement of some kind that saves the taxpayers from a wholly preventable economic crisis.”

The day began with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) suggesting that a timely agreement is increasingly unlikely and accusing Boehner of putting his speakership ahead of the country’s interests. Later in the afternoon, rumors of a forthcoming scaled-back offer from Obama were shut down by the White House and top Democrats while separate rumors of a possible meeting between Obama and congressional leaders Friday were left unconfirmed.

House Republican leaders revealed that the chamber will reconvene Sunday, two days before the new year, for evening votes. McConnell and Reid met late Thursday afternoon but several reports indicated they weren’t discussing the fiscal cliff.