Members of the Senate minority leader's own Republican Party are criticizing him, some for failing to lead toward a compromise, others for failing to support attempts to thwart Obamacare.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- As the federal government moves into its 10th day of a shutdown, with an imminent debt failure looming, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is taking flak from both the right and the left.
Democrats such as Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who could face McConnell in next year's general election, repeat daily that he has failed to provide leadership that could have averted the crisis.
"Kentuckians deserve a senator who will fight for them in Washington, not one who demolishes our nation's economy on the backs of middle-class families — just to save his job," her campaign said in a news release Wednesday.
At the same time, members of McConnell's own Republican Party are criticizing him — some accusing him of failing to lead toward a compromise; others of failing to support attempts to thwart the Affordable Care Act, also known as "Obamacare," by unflinchingly tying it to votes to end the shutdown or raise the debt ceiling.
According to The Hill newspaper, which cited an unnamed source, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., told McConnell during a recent closed-door meeting that there is a "leadership vacuum" in the Senate GOP, saying McConnell and others weren't doing enough to rein in the ardent Obamacare opponents.
Coburn, the newspaper reported, complained that efforts by Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah were only providing fodder for candidates to use against sitting Republicans in the 2014 election.
McConnell spokesman Robert Steurer directed inquiries about the alleged discussion to Coburn. Coburn had refused to comment to The Hill, and his spokesman, John Hart, didn't return Courier-Journal calls and emails seeking comment.
On the flip side of that flap, representatives of other GOP groups — the Senate Conservatives Fund, a political action committee formed by former South Carolina Sen. Jim Demint; ForAmerica, another conservative political action group; and The Madison Project, which helped Cruz get elected — have criticized McConnell for not doing enough in support of their government shutdown strategy.
And Matt Bevin, who is challenging McConnell in the Republican primary, has criticized McConnell's leadership on issues ranging from the shutdown to Obamacare to immigration.
"He leaves the heavy lifting to the true conservatives like Senators Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Rand Paul," Bevin spokeswoman Sarah Durand said. "He will weigh in eventually — once he figures out which way the wind is blowing and the battle is over."
Defending his position
McConnell's office disputes any suggestion that he is avoiding the issues, noting that the senator has spoken repeatedly about the standoff and took part in a White House meeting with President Barack Obama and congressional leaders last week.
On Tuesday, McConnell took to the Senate floor to complain that the Senate Democrats won't negotiate, echoing the stance of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
"There's a time for politics, and there's a time for sitting down like adults and working things out. Republicans are ready and willing to negotiate. We invite Senate Democrat leaders to join us," McConnell said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada contends, however, that Democrats did negotiate a budget resolution with Boehner earlier this year but that the House leader reneged under pressure from members of the tea party wing, who didn't like that the deal wouldn't touch Obamacare.
McConnell, in the hours before the government shutdown took effect, proposed legislation to continue spending for a week to give both sides time to compromise. That legislation, however, was dead on arrival.
Political observers say that McConnell either can't do much at this point or doesn't want to, lest he look interested in compromise — a potential kiss of death for his re-election hopes with tea party Republicans.
In a Washington Post column Tuesday titled "Mitch McConnell's vanishing act," Dana Milbank says "one person deserves more culpability" for the shutdown than anyone else: Bevin, McConnell's primary opponent, who has tea party backing.
"There is no secret ballot, and McConnell, like House Speaker John Boehner, must choose between the good of the country and keeping his job. So far, they have both chosen the latter," Milbank wrote.
Giving up control
Steve Ellis, vice president of the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense, said McConnell lost virtually all of his power in the matter when he and other Senate leaders allowed a cloture vote on the continuing budget resolution that would have allowed government to continue spending when the fiscal year began Oct. 1.
That vote shut down debate on the resolution and blocked Republicans from filibustering it. And with debate on the issue closed, Reid has free rein to bring up votes on the issue and the GOP has no way to stop him.
"No matter who is in his seat right now, he would not be a primary player in this," Ellis said of McConnell. "It's a three man show. Boehner, Reid and Obama."
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, agreed that the GOP's minority status in the Senate — without the threat of filibuster now that the cloture vote was taken — makes McConnell an afterthought.
"The Democrats are running the Senate, and the Republicans are pretty much cut out of it there," Sabato said.
Sabato also said McConnell doesn't have much room to take a leadership role in cutting a deal because Senate Democrats and Obama have ruled out any compromise that involves the Affordable Care Act, and because McConnell doesn't have access to Vice President Joe Biden, with whom he has worked well in the past.
"The White House has forbidden Biden from doing any deals," Sabato said.
But beyond that, Ellis, Sabato and others say McConnell doesn't want to take the lead in reaching an agreement because working out a deal could be viewed as weakness by Republican primary voters.
Like The Washington Post's Milbank, Norm Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, contends that next year's election is the only reason McConnell hasn't stepped forward.
Ornstein said that if McConnell could craft a deal with Reid that gives some concessions to Republicans, didn't touch Obamacare and could "push it through the Senate with 85 votes," it would completely change the dynamics in the House, where Boehner is under pressure from tea party Republicans to hold firm.
But he said McConnell sees no benefit in doing that.
"He is studiously avoiding a visible role," Ornstein said. "This is not the Mitch McConnell of the debt limit confrontation of 2011. It's not the the Mitch McConnell of the fiscal cliff negotiation of 2012."
In those years, McConnell was instrumental in crafting deals — but even then was worried that compromise with Obama might hurt him. In 2011, Politico reported that he "barked" at Reid after Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., praised him on television.
"Tell your henchman to stop saying nice things about me. ... It hurts me," McConnell reportedly said.
Ornstein said McConnell stepped forward to cut deals then that he believed were beneficial to the GOP. Now, Ornstein said, McConnell doesn't see any benefit for the party or himself.
"Being viewed as the guy who saved Obamacare, or who contributed to a solution that somehow raised taxes or that protected government" wouldn't be good, Ornstein said. "Some of those tea party Kentuckians would sit on their hands and stay home in November, and Alison (Grimes) could win."