WASHINGTON -- Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) may have been frosty to the Tea Party before, but he's offering the irate anti-tax crowd a warm welcome today as they descend on the Capitol to demand steep budget cuts.
McConnell angered the anti-government movement last fall when he balked, initially, at Sen. Jim DeMint's (R-S.C.) push to ban earmarks. He eventually relented, but not before taking a beating from many in the Tea Party.
On Thursday, McConnell didn't make that mistake again. And for good measure, he tossed a few jabs at Democratic message maven Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who's been advising his colleagues to brand the GOP and Tea Party as "extreme" on the budget.
"Anybody who follows national politics knows that when it comes to a lot of the issues Americans care about most, Democrat leaders in Washington are pretty far outside the mainstream," McConnell said this morning in a Senate floor speech.
"We've got one Democrat leader coaching his colleagues to describe any Republican idea as 'extreme,'" McConnell said. "That's why other Democrats are attempting to marginalize an entire group of people in this country ... I'm referring, of course, to the Tea Party."
"Despite the Democrat leadership's talking points, these folks are not radicals. They're our next-door neighbors and our friends," he declared.
The real extremists, he said, are the Democrats, who are resisting the deep cuts written into the House budget bill that would fund the rest of this year. They argue that the cuts could damage the fragile economy, leaving both sides in a standoff with federal funding set to run out April 8.
"If you ask me, the goals of the Tea Party sound pretty reasonable," McConnell said. "What's extreme is spending more than a trillion and a half dollars than we have in a single year. This is the Democrats' approach. This is what's extreme."
Democrats appeared amused by the minority leader's soliloquy, which could be seen as emboldening the Tea Party -- and making life tougher for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who needs to cut a deal with his own members, many of whom are Tea Party-backed, in order to keep the government running.
Boehner's own No. 2, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), has seemed more inclined than Boehner to hold a hard line in budget talks, leaving many to perceive a split in the House leadership, though the GOP denies it.
Democrats were quick to note the thorny situation for Republicans, as well as McConnell's past diffidence with the Tea Party and DeMint.
"Mitch McConnell has to pay some lip service to the Tea Party because he doesn't want Jim DeMint doing to him what Eric Cantor is doing to Boehner," a Senate leadership aide remarked. "But it's nice to see him finally return to the budget debate after hiding from the pitchforks for the last several weeks."
In a press conference Thursday, Boehner said he was "well aware” that Tea Partiers were in town, and cautioned patience even as he welcomed their enthusiasm.
“There are a lot of people in Washington who want to do a lot of different things,” he said. “We control one-half of one-third of the government here in Washington. We can’t impose our will on another body, we can’t impose our will on the Senate. ... All we can do is to fight for all of the spending cuts that we can get an agreement to, and the spending limitations as well.”