Will Mitch McConnell Save The Day On The Fiscal Cliff?

When debt limit negotiations between Speaker John Boehner and President Obama collapsed in the summer of 2011, Mitch McConnell stepped in and struck a deal to avert default. Half a year later, when the two sides were at an impasse on how to extend the payroll tax cut, the Senate minority leader again intervened and gave Republicans an escape route.

Now, with just a week left before massive tax hikes and spending cuts take effect, the president and speaker are again at a stalemate, and the country is headed for the fiscal cliff on Jan. 1. McConnell’s masterful strategic mind is built for moments like these. But will he intervene? For now, he’s not giving any indication of it, saying it’s up to Obama to find a solution.“We have had no outreach from Dems here or at the White House,” McConnell’s spokesman Don Stewart told TPM by email Wednesday. “So we really don’t know what their plans are.”

The Kentuckian has made his preferences clear: deep spending cuts, including to entitlement programs, and no tax hikes. But, importantly, he hasn’t stood in the way of letting Democrats extend the Bush tax cuts for middle incomes, which passed the Senate in July. (It would only partially avert the fiscal cliff.) His members have urged House Republicans, to little avail, to swallow some new taxes.

Unlike the earlier situations, though, McConnell faces re-election next cycle, and his greatest threats come from the right — hardline conservatives who are demanding he use his power to avoid any tax hikes. Brokering a compromise now would draw fire from them.

Last week Boehner, having halted talks with Obama, sought to break his members’ anti-tax fever and pass a bill, dubbed Plan B, to let taxes rise on incomes over $1 million. He canceled the vote at the last minute on Thursday, conceding it lacked the support to pass, and dismissed his members for the holidays. The episode emboldened conservative anti-tax hardliners.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel echoed McConnell’s office, telling TPM by email on Wednesday: “We will take a look at whatever Senate Democrats produce.”

A Democratic leadership aide said Republicans mustn’t “walk away” from the table.

“It would be a shame if Republicans threw up their hands and walked away, because we can’t pass anything through the Senate without their cooperation, and nothing can pass the House without Speaker Boehner at least letting it come to the floor,” said the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

At the clock ticks, the prospects for a comprehensive deficit reduction deal to replace the fiscal cliff also diminish. One possible way out, which has reportedly been discussed among top House Republicans, is to bring the Senate-passed tax bill to the floor and let it pass mostly on the strength of Democratic votes, with most Republicans voting “present.”

The House isn’t scheduled to return until 2013, although GOP leaders have said they may reconvene with 48 hours notice. But the Senate is poised to return Thursday, and if there was ever a moment for McConnell to step in, that would be it.

“This isn’t funny,” McConnell said Friday on the Senate floor. “People’s livelihoods are at stake here. The U.S. economy is at stake here. Millions upon millions of families are counting on us to do something.”