WASHINGTON -- More concerned with attacks from the left than the right and eager, as always, to dominate the inside game, Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell became the functional head of the Republican Party over the last week as he led behind-the-scenes negotiations to reach a spending and debt deal.
He risked becoming a punching bag for the tea party and its loudest leader, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. But McConnell did not seem to mind -- even though in his 2014 reelection race, he has a tea party challenger, businessman Matt Bevin of Louisville.
"This notion that McConnell is hiding under the desk because of Matt Bevin and the tea party is a lazy Washington media narrative and it isn't true," said one of the Senate minority leader's top aides. "This deal shows that McConnell has one goal, which is to get things done."
If this week is any indication, it's Cruz who should be careful in taking on McConnell, a five-term Senate veteran whose syrupy voice and turtle-slow demeanor hide a combative political mind.
McConnell isolated and neutralized Cruz by meeting quietly and carefully with small groups of GOP senators over the last week, and then took soundings at lunches and conferences -- all the while essentially working around Cruz and his handful of top lieutenants. McConnell deployed a novel buddy system, in which about 10 GOP senators worked privately in pairs with friends across the aisle to sound out various provisions of the deal.
When Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid and McConnell announced the deal, Cruz was left to hurry to the microphones to decry it as a sellout, even while he claimed with a straight face that he had never sought delay for its own sake.
In fact, that is exactly what Cruz ended up doing for two weeks -- only not on Wednesday.
McConnell defended the Senate deal, the chief feature of which, by his accounting, was the fact that it did not alter the severe spending cuts that Congress imposed under the sequestration mechanism of 2011. His aides also said that the deal contains a small hike in the debt ceiling and a shorter "continuing resolution" to keep the government open than the White House and Democrats had wanted.
On the other hand, the deal says next to nothing about Obamacare, which McConnell has argued is "ravaging" the country and must be abolished "root and branch." There was barely a twig in the deal: It would require additional anti-fraud measures, which White House spokesman Jay Carney called a "modest adjustment to the law." "We're fine with it," Carney said.
The Reid-McConnell deal was quickly denounced by Bevin. "When the stakes are highest, Mitch McConnell can always be counted on to sell out conservatives," Bevin said in a statement.
But McConnell is likely to get protection on his right flank from fellow Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a tea party favorite but not one who has counseled shutting down the government and threatening default on the national debt.
Paul was unsure how he would vote on the deal -- he hadn't yet read it when I spoke to him Wednesday -- but he indicated in general that he supported McConnell's efforts to craft an agreement.
"He's trying to do the responsible thing," Paul said.
In the longer run, McConnell is probably more concerned about his 2014 Democratic challenger, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. Relatively well funded for a newcomer and close to the Clintons, among others, she has a full campaign up and running and has been attacking McConnell as a do-nothing "Senator Gridlock."
Grimes is running competitively against McConnell in early polls. Her spokeswoman also released a statement after news of the deal broke: "[A]ny last minute deal should not obscure the fact that Senator McConnell created the shutdown with members of his own party, hurt Kentucky’s families, seniors and small businesses and cost the U.S. economy at least $4.8 billion."
McConnell is a shrewd politician, and he could see what the shutdown was doing to the Republican brand, even in a red state like Kentucky.
He's also a master at cutting deals and cutting losses. McConnell was instrumental in crafting the budget, tax and borrowing deals of 2010, 2011 and 2012. In the tea party era, that's not a record he often brags about in public, but it is one he just added on Wednesday.
After the House failed Tuesday to put together a deal, it was McConnell who called Reid to get the ball rolling again in the Senate. Wednesday morning, at a closed meeting among Senate Republicans, he engineered a show of hands as to whether anyone in the room would try to stop the deal.
Cruz did not raise his hand -- and later said he would not stand in the way.
Round One, Mitch McConnell.
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