By Sam Youngman
Fresh off his high-profile role in a compromise that re-opened the federal government and extended the debt ceiling, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said he did what was best for the country.
In a phone interview with the Lexington Herald-Leader Thursday morning, McConnell said he had to “step up” and save the country from harm, adding that his likely Democratic opponent’s attacks against him had been rendered moot by doing so.
Since the shutdown began on Oct. 1, Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes’ campaign has waged a press release war against McConnell, calling him “Senator Gridlock” and blaming him for the shutdown.
“It steps on the whole narrative of her campaign, and so she’s desperately trying to criticize something I was praised for by Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer and Amy Klobuchar among others,” McConnell said. “That’s why she’s engaged in this sort of desperate name-calling.”
After the deal was passed Wednesday night, McConnell and his team circulated praise for the senior senator’s role in forging a deal, including compliments from NBC’s Chuck Todd.
The Grimes campaign dismissed such talk, issuing a statement Wednesday morning that said McConnell “remains the ‘Guardian of Gridlock,’ just as he has for the last 30 years.”
“It is an embarrassment that McConnell waited until the 11th hour to stop the manufactured crisis that he and Members of Congress created,” said Grimes campaign spokeswoman Charly Norton. “It is not heroic for Mitch McConnell to do his job and reopen the government. He may think this is a winning strategy, but Kentuckians now have to pay for Mitch McConnell’s Washington dysfunction.”
The senator said he did the best he could with what he had, noting that the House’s inability to pass a spending plan “put me in a position where I had very few cards to play.”
Using a football analogy, McConnell said Republicans had been backed up to their own 2-yard line after the “quixotic adventure” to defund President Barack Obama’s health care law, and his only option was to punt and “get a better field position” ahead of the next budget battle in January.
“We were actually in a really weak position,” McConnell said. “We’re always in a stronger position when the House can pass something.”
McConnell brushed off criticism from Republican primary challenger Matt Bevin, who accused the senator of caving in to Democratic demands.
“I take a back seat to no one in my opposition to the Obama administration,” McConnnell said. “But there are times of national crisis when someone needs to step forward. When the nation is in a crisis it’s important for leaders to step up and show the way out.”
Noting his record of working with Democrats on three recent occasions — extending the Bush tax cuts in 2010, the debt ceiling fight of 2011 and the New Year’s Eve fiscal cliff deal of 2012 — McConnell said “this is the one I’m least happy with.”
But McConnell noted that spending cuts that resulted from the Budget Control Act he negotiated in 2011, more commonly referred to as the sequester, were kept in place thanks to his efforts after Reid, sensing victory, tried to add them to the negotiations.
“That was a nonstarter,” McConnell said. “We didn’t raise taxes and we didn’t raise caps.”
As for the heat he is taking over the inclusion of almost $3 billion in authorization for the Olmstead dam and lock project in Western Kentucky, McConnell said the Army Corps of Engineers had requested the funds, both the House and Senate had voted for it before and failure to add it to the final deal would’ve resulted in $160 million in lost contracts.
“Every senator had a chance to review it and none — none — asked for it to be taken out,” he said. “It’s pretty rare that you actually save money in a spending bill.”
While some conservative groups pinned the blame for the Olmstead’s inclusion in the deal on McConnell, Sen. Lamar Alexander said Wednesday night he requested it be added.
Sen. John McCain came to the minority leader’s defense Wednesday morning, tweeting, “I do not believe that Senator McConnell was responsible for the “anomaly” earmark for the Olmstead Dam project in last night’s budget deal.”