GOP turns to McConnell for entitlement-reform fight

The fiscal-cliff cycle of brinksmanship burnished the negotiating reputations of few people in Washington, but two figures did eventually gain credibility — Vice President Joe Biden, who elbowed Harry Reid out of the way, and Senator Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who took up the reins when John Boehner’s Plan B strategy collapsed.  Look for that combination to take charge again in the entitlement-reform fight coming up next, reports The Hill’s Alexander Bolton, as both sides look for ways to reach some sort of common ground on spending and the debt ceiling:

Lawmakers see the passage of a bill to extend most of the Bush-era income tax rates and settle the question of estate, capital gains and dividend tax rates as a template for how to move the next installment of deficit reduction.

That would mean moving bipartisan legislation first in the Senate and put McConnell, the senior senator from Kentucky, in the driver’s seat.

“I think he’ll play a major role. I think he and Vice President Biden have a good working relationship,  and it appears to be one of the few good working relationships that the administration has with members of Congress on the Republican side of the aisle,” said former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who was one of McConnell’s most trusted advisers and is a columnist for The Hill.

This makes sense for Republicans, and even for Boehner, who found himself weakened in the Plan B flop and in the vote for Speaker.  Boehner had too much trouble getting his caucus to agree to a united front on strategy on taxes, and the same battle lines will probably appear when it comes time for a vote on the debt ceiling.  That makes Boehner an unreliable negotiating partner on any vote that requires a bloc vote from the GOP caucus to pass a deal.

As we saw in the tax deal, the Senate is really the true battlefield anyway.  Any deal that gets bipartisan support there will probably get enough Democrats and Republicans in combination in the House to approve it.  That puts the focus on McConnell, even if he’s “not looking to supplant” Boehner, as GOP staffers in the Senate tell Bolton.  Circumstances have probably done that already, and given his recent woes, Boehner may not mind all that much.

Of course, this makes another McConnell development rather awkward:

A conservative group has begun running online ads in Kentucky targeting Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who is up for re-election in 2014, because the “fiscal-cliff” deal he brokered.

Brent Bozell, the chairman of ForAmerica, which reports an online membership of 3 million, has launched one of the first ads of the 2014 cycle on conservative websites in Kentucky. The group says it is as a five-figure buy.

The ad, entitled “Whose Side Are You On,” asks conservatives to sign a petition letting Republican lawmakers know they will be held accountable if they vote for legislation to further increase taxes.

“As negotiations over the so-called ‘fiscal cliff’ were intensifying, conservatives called on McConnell and congressional Republicans to hold the line on tax rates and demand cuts to spending, as they had promised,” the petition states. “But when the deadline was looming, McConnell called Vice President Joe Biden and signed off on a deal with the White House that included tax increases and virtually no spending cuts.”

I doubt McConnell will be too worried about his standing in Kentucky.  His next election is almost two years off, and he’s probably already raised millions for the effort.  He also has an opportunity to force spending cuts in Part II of the 2013 round of fiscal-cliff jumping, as well as some entitlement reforms, that will negate the main thrust of Bozell’s attack — if McConnell succeeds, of course.

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