POLITICS
12/03/2010 02:08 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Mitch McConnell's GOP Unity Frays In Late-Night Talks

WASHINGTON -- After a day of negotiations with his counterpart, Harry Reid headed for the Senate floor to put the chamber's procedural stamp on a deal that had been reached between him and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Reid had called a late-evening meeting of his caucus to get its assent and McConnell had alerted his Republican conference. All that was left was for Reid to ask unanimous consent from the body to hold four votes the next day -- two Democratic votes, one extending tax cuts for those making up to $250,000 and the second extending it for all whose income falls under $1,000,000; and two Republican proposals that would either temporarily or permanently extend all the tax cuts.

Just before Reid took the podium, Republican staff learned there'd been an objection from the Republican side, meaning that consent was just shy of unanimous. The staff quickly grabbed a Democratic floor aide, who got to Reid before he read the agreement into the congressional record, according to a senior Democratic aide who was involved in the negotiations.

Reid left the floor looking for McConnell, but the Republican leader was on his way out of the building. Reid headed for McConnell's office, as reporters advised him they'd seen him leave. McConnell's staff confirmed to Reid that their boss had gone to dinner; Reid told them to get him on the phone, which led to the unusual scene of Reid talking to McConnell on a phone in McConnell's office.

McConnell was just as surprised by the objection of one of his senators, he told Reid, as Reid was. Reid came out to discuss the developments roughly ten minutes later. "We thought we had something worked out to have a number of votes, but the Republicans couldn't clear it," he said. "So we are going to have cloture votes on our priorities on Saturday." Reid returned to the floor and filed cloture on the two Democratic proposals, dropping the GOP side of the deal.

McConnell's failure to get agreement is evidence, say Democrats, of his inability to control the Republicans in his charge, despite the conventional wisdom that Republicans are unified.

"The same week Republicans claim unification on cutting taxes and funding the government, Senator McConnell couldn't keep his caucus together when the rubber hit the road," Reid spokesman Jim Manley said. Manley sent a taunting tweet to McConnell's spokesman, Don Stewart, which made a similar point. "If Minority Leader Coburn had cooperated, we could have had these votes today," Manley wrote, referring to Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the Republican who had reportedly objected.

Stewart said that McConnell could have gotten his conference together if he thought that the votes were more than theater. "If this was something that was real and was going to become law, maybe we could spend some more time on [getting consensus]. But there's not a hue and cry to have a couple failed votes on a Friday afternoon, especially when the real negotiators are working literally down the hall," he said. "If this was a serious effort, that would be some fine spin on [Democrats'] part, and I'd acknowledge it."

Dick Durbin, the Senate's number-two Democrat, said he felt for McConnell. "In fairness to Senator McConnell, and I want to be fair to him, he was stopped by one member. [He] told us there was one Republican, but he didn't tell us who it was. So, it appears the sentiment in the Republican caucus was to move forward with these votes to establish the political parameters here, but he couldn't clear it with his caucus."