God bless Mitch McConnell.
The Senate Republican leader isn't an especially lovable figure. Even many of his fellow conservatives are lukewarm about him.
He's colorless and charisma-free. He's a thoroughgoing partisan who has launched more filibusters than any Senate leader in history. He's a relentless fan of unlimited campaign spending and a bitter opponent not just of Obamacare but of all things Obama. Asked in 2010 to describe his highest legislative goal, he said it was to make sure Barack Obama was a one-term president.
But the wily Kentuckian is also an old-fashioned legislative strategist who can count votes, discern when his party is holding a losing hand and make the decision to cut a deal.
That's what McConnell did this week when he sat down with his Democratic counterpart, the equally unlovable Harry Reid of Nevada, and struck a bargain to reopen the federal government and avert the danger of a default on the national debt.
"No one wants a default," McConnell said. "So let's put this hysterical talk of default behind us and instead start talking about finding solutions."
McConnell took a distinct political risk in agreeing to extend the federal debt ceiling until February with almost no strings attached. The Senate Conservatives Fund, a fundraising group that backs primary challenges to Republicans it deems insufficiently hard-line, denounced him for "negotiating surrender." (This column won't do him much good either.) But McConnell could read the polls. The longer the government shutdown continued and the closer the nation came to a politically induced financial crisis, the more the GOP was losing.
And McConnell, a ferocious enforcer of discipline, knew he could deliver most of his party's votes. "There are few things more daunting in politics," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., once said, "than the determined opposition of Sen. McConnell." But whether a deal is done by the time you read this column doesn't depend on McConnell alone. His counterpart on the other side of Capitol Hill has a tougher job.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who holds a safe seat and commands a 32-seat majority, can't manage to work his will among the 232 Republicans who chose him as their leader.
On Tuesday, Boehner and his lieutenants tried to unveil a proposal of their own to end the budget standoff, one with tougher conditions than the bargain McConnell struck with Reid. The idea was to give the House a coherent position from which to negotiate with the Senate and to avoid being "jammed" to accept the McConnell-Reid deal as today's deadline for lifting the debt ceiling bore down.
In a basement conference room in the Capitol on Tuesday morning, House Republicans gathered, bowed their heads, and — in lieu of an opening prayer — sang three a cappella verses of "Amazing Grace." It went downhill from there. Tea party conservatives, who had caucused the night before at a Mexican restaurant called Tortilla Coast, complained that Boehner's draft didn't do enough to block Obama's health care law. Fiscal conservatives balked at lifting the debt ceiling for as long as the four months proposed by the Senate.
Boehner warned his colleagues — as he has many times — that flirting with the debt ceiling was a bad idea. "The idea of default is wrong, and we shouldn't get anywhere close to it," he said. But after a day of backroom negotiations, the speaker withdrew his own draft proposal, leaving the House without any plan at all.