Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has reasserted his leadership on Capitol Hill, with the Kentucky Republican's aggressive maneuvering to end the October government shutdown reversing months of caution as he geared up for re-election.
McConnell allies dismiss suggestions that he relaxed his leadership presence in the Senate in the first nine months of 2013 after engineering a deal with President Obama to avert the fiscal cliff. McConnell's leadership style is subtle and he's not prone to grandstanding for the cameras, they said. He values listening and moves judiciously and quietly when he chooses to exert his will over fellow Republicans.
But at least a few members of McConnell's caucus observed a difference in tone since earlier this year. Some privately complained that McConnell's focus on Kentucky and his tough 2014 re-election battle distracted him from the Senate's business, allowing a pair of GOP freshman senators to press their fight to defund Obamacare until it became unstoppable and led to a government shutdown.
The 16-day government shutdown caused Republican approval ratings to plunge. Most GOP senators grew frustrated with the impasse and were desperately seeking a way out when McConnell finally reaffirmed command and struck a deal that reopened the government and avoided default on the national debt. McConnell's allies say that's just how he operates, that he asserts himself at the moment he's most needed.
“I think what has happened here is that Mitch McConnell has become a little bit more transparent in his leadership style,” said a Republican insider who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “That’s been helpful to the conference, and to him.”
“My respect for Mitch McConnell has only grown in the past couple of weeks,” Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., told the Washington Examiner. “In a really bold, courageous way, he took control of the situation. … We needed leadership and he stepped in and provided that leadership.”
McConnell remains popular inside his caucus. Indeed, his critics said that McConnell's problem wasn't a lack of leadership, but rather his lack of attention to internal caucus matters on which he once focused. It was that lack of attention, they said, that allowed the defund-or-shutdown campaign to accelerate beyond his control.
Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, the GOP senators who led the defunding effort, said they felt compelled to act because Senate Republican leaders failed to produce an alternative strategy to blunt the implementation of Obamacare.
Not everyone agrees.
A veteran Republican operative said lawmakers sometimes seek overly simple solutions to complex political problems, while leaving it to others to do what's necessary to resolve the problem itself. If that were the case, there would have been little McConnell could have done to stop the defunding effort or avoid the shutdown.
“They’re all wanting a magical, happy moment,” this operative said. “There was no answer.”
If McConnell's leadership before the shutdown was seen as lacking, there was little doubt he was actively directing matters after the government closed on Oct. 1.
Throughout the impasse, McConnell met sometimes several times a day with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. Their offices on the Capitol's west front are just yards apart and connected by a private corridor that makes access for in-person conversations convenient. After communication between Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., broke down, McConnell became the chief conduit of information between the House GOP leadership and Senate Democrats.
It was McConnell who advised Boehner in the 11th hour to begin pushing through the House legislation to reopen the government in hopes of increasing the pressure on the Senate to settle.
The House bill ultimately failed, but the deal McConnell struck with Reid formed the basis for the final agreement that ended the government shutdown and raised the debt ceiling just hours before the country would have defaulted on its financial obligations.
That deal also ended a politically damaging episode for the GOP and allowed Republicans to shift public and media attention away from their infighting to the serial problems afflicting the rollout of Obamacare.
“When there are intractable problem that can not be solved, he’s been there every time,” a Republican with ties to McConnell said.