Senator Gridlock Rides to the Rescue, and Possibly Reelection

Jill Lawrence

Mitch McConnell's late-breaking emergence at the center of negotiations to stave off default and reopen the government is making life more complicated for the Democrat who wants to oust him.

Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes routinely refers to McConnell as Senator Gridlock and Democrats say she does not intend to stop. Her aides were using the derogatory nickname even as McConnell and Harry Reid were deep into discussions of how to bring the country back from the brink.

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McConnell broke last month with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's crusade to defund Obamacare – the Affordable Care Act – in a bill to keep the rest of the government running. That and his talks with Reid make him seem, at least for the moment, like a pragmatist amid the tea party absolutists on the right. The moves also reflect his relative freedom to operate as he sees fit.

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While McConnell has a tea party primary challenger, Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, two polls last summer showed he had three times as much support as Bevin. He is not acting like a worried man, nor does he need to. "I don't think Matt Bevin is even the slightest blip on the radar screen. He has absolutely no clue how to run a campaign," says Republican Marc Wilson, a Kentucky-based strategist-turned-lobbyist.

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That's one reason. The other is the anger and frustration of people affected by the shutdown or simply fed up with the stalemate in Washington. "There's no doubt there's a political upside for being part of the solution," says a strategist close to the McConnell campaign. "Virtually every American sees the problem as a catastrophe."

The up sides are many, in fact. McConnell positions himself as a constructive force for the general election campaign next year against Grimes, and gains a talking point he can use every time she calls him Senator Gridlock. He helps put an end to an episode that has been terribly destructive to his party –with polls showing that three-quarters of the country disapproves of the way the GOP has been handling the budget crisis. And he gets credit for being rational about what his minority party can and can't achieve when the Senate and White House are in Democratic hands.

The Grimes camp says McConnell has a long history of obstructionism in the Senate that has worked against Kentucky's interests. The campaign issued a statement this week suggesting that "Senator Gridlock hopes to swoop in for a last-minute backroom deal" because the markets are sliding in anticipation of default and "McConnell believes his own finances will be impacted."

It isn't the first time McConnell has swooped in. The 2012 fiscal cliff, the 2011 Budget Control Act, the tax deal of 2010 -- whenever polarization threatens to derail the economy and relations between the two parties, McConnell is in the thick of negotiations. Josh Holmes, a senior adviser to McConnell's campaign, says "Senator Gridlock" is a caricature that doesn't hold up. "Virtually every time we've come to an economic standstill because of failure in Washington, you've got Sen. McConnell working with both sides to fix it," he says.

And yet, McConnell has a history of obstructing Obama administration initiatives and even the normal workings of government. For instance, Senate Republicans have for six months blocked repeated Democratic attempts to hold budget negotiations with the House – talks that might have averted the shutdown. "He's used partisanship and the filibuster more specifically to bring Washington to a grinding halt and create the type of culture and circumstances that led to this mess," says Matt Canter, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. He says that argument remains "salient, powerful and accurate."

But McConnell will have an equally powerful counter-argument now that the debt ceiling and shutdown crises have converged and he is once again coming to the rescue.

If that recalls the proverbial man who killed his parents then begged the court for mercy because he was an orphan, well, maybe so. But that doesn't make it any easier for Grimes. McConnell is sounding like the voice of reason these days in a party that has control of one half of one-third of the government, and a few dozen people who believe that's a mandate.

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