Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his fellow Republicans were never going to warmly embrace the House-passed budget compromise that cleared the Senate on Wednesday and headed to President Obama's desk.
Throughout the week, political observers engaged in the usual, will-he-or-won’t-he speculation regarding the Kentucky Republican’s vote on a two-year budget plan that would keep the government running for the next 18 months. But they shouldn’t have.
McConnell was a primary negotiator behind the 2011 Budget Control Act that created the across-the-board sequester budget cuts threatened by the current compromise. The Act is something he still boasts about, so it's not likely he would ever back a budget bill that restored a portion of those cuts the way the new budget bill would.
“Obviously, I have some pride of authorship there, having negotiated that deal with the vice president,” McConnell said. “I and most of my members came to Washington to reduce government spending. So I hated to walk away from something that, you know, clearly was working, and I don't think any of you had any doubts as to how I was going to vote.”
House Republicans were never as enamored of the sequester spending cuts as their colleagues in the Senate. The cuts were seen as usurping some of the House's authority to regulate taxes and spending — the power of the purse — and were particularly problematic for Republicans who wanted to protect the Pentagon from deeper spending reductions.
Above all, House Republican leaders never shared McConnell’s pride of authorship of the budget act that spawned the sequester cuts. McConnell had negotiated that deal with Vice President Joe Biden in the summer of 2011 as part of an agreement to raise the debt ceiling and avert a federal default. It was thrust upon House Republicans, who had failed to produce a plan of their own that could win the support of Senate Democrats and the White House.
In negotiations over the current budget compromise, the roles were reversed.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., worked with Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash., to iron out a two-year, $2 trillion spending plan that would prevent a government shutdown in January and keep the government open through September 2015. Senate Republican leaders weren’t involved in the talks, and they felt free to quietly urge their members to oppose the compromise, which they did, according to GOP sources.
Even Senate Republicans who supported the Murray-Ryan budget were careful to point out that their vote should not be characterized as a strike against the Budget Control Act.
“I think the Budget Control Act was good law; I supported it,” Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said. “This is a relatively small change to permit the appropriations process to go forward and to prevent another government shutdown, which was the alternative.”
Under the sequester-enforced caps, spending in fiscal 2014 would have totaled $967 billion. The Murray-Ryan compromise, which if not adjusted later would trim the deficit by $22.5 billion over 10 years, spends $1.012 trillion while restoring $63 billion in previously scheduled cuts. All of the Senate's Republican leaders stood with McConnell in opposing the compromise and only nine of the chamber's 45 Republican members supported it.
Only 51 votes were needed to pass the compromise so Democrats, who control 55 votes, could have passed it with no Republican support. That likely made it easier for GOP lawmakers to oppose the bill without fear of sparking a second government shutdown in January.
Over the last two-plus years — long before he faced a Republican challenger in the upcoming Senate primary in Kentucky —McConnell has gone out of his way to publicly promote the Budget Control Act and his role in creating it.
But given McConnell’s role in negotiating an end to the October government shutdown, and his very outspoken opposition to shuttering Washington again when the current spending bill expires in mid-January, some have wondered how strongly he would oppose the Murray-Ryan compromise.
Although Senate Democrats were able to coral enough GOP votes to avoid a filibuster and move the budget compromise up for a final vote, Republican senators pointed to the fact that only nine of their colleagues eventually supported the compromise as proof that McConnell and Senate Republicans remain committed to the sequester-driven budget reductions.
“The Budget Control Act is a terrific law, we should do our best to keep it,” Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said.
“I think this demonstrates how different the House and Senate are,” Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, added.