Kentucky Tea Party leaders are voicing frustration with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell over his role in forging a bill that averted the fiscal cliff, and are encouraging a primary challenge in his re-election bid.
In the final days of negotiations, McConnell worked closely with Vice President Joe Biden to fashion an agreement that passed both chambers of Congress with bipartisan support. The Biden-McConnell bill extended the Bush-era tax cuts permanently for individuals making less than $400,000, but it delayed government spending cuts for another two months.
Louisville Tea Party President Sarah Durand says rank and file members were already displeased with McConnell’s record on fiscal issues, and are furious over the latest development.
"When he negotiates a bill that gets people like John Yarmuth to support it, but not people like Sen. Rand Paul and Congressman Thomas Massie, it kind of makes Republicans wonder whose side are you on? Right now the conservatives in Kentucky are talking about the fiscal problems that we have and the fact that Sen. McConnell’s not wiling to do anything to solve those is certainly going to be a problem for his re-election” she says.
McConnell's supporters argue that the GOP leader salvaged a deal after Speaker John Boehner failed to do so. Others say that without McConnell, taxes would have gone up on every income earner in Kentucky, and that President Obama had to raise his initial threshold of $250,000 to $400,000.
The Biden-McConnell deal also benefits businesses with specific breaks, and keeps increases to estate and capital gains taxes at a minimum. However, it adds $3.9 trillion to the country's deficit and will lead to $330 billion in increased spending over the next decade.
"The deal certainly favors the Democrat Party, but Sen. McConnell did a fine job," says James Young, chairman of the Louisville Young Republicans. "There is a divide when it comes what was the best route for the fiscal cliff deal, but Sen. McConnell is the leader of the Republican Senate and he accomplished the best possible deal in the current tax climate."
Several prominent conservatives—including anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist—also came out in support of the Biden-McConnell plan by pointing out that it avoided a tax hike for the vast majority of Americans.
In many circles, it's considered that McConnell helped "limit the damage" from Democrats who had spent years decrying the Bush era tax cuts.
From The National Review:
Perhaps congressional Republicans, and especially Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, could have gotten a better deal. And it is perfectly reasonable for Republicans to vote against the bill as a way of registering their justified unhappiness with the direction of fiscal policy. A uniform Republican vote for the deal might have communicated the wrong message to the public.
In our judgment, though, the deal was worth passing. It will result in less economic damage than either doing nothing (and thus letting all the tax cuts expire) or adopting Obama’s initial position would have. It will also give the federal government less revenue to spend than either of those alternatives. Conservatives who judge these matters differently should make their case without suggesting, falsely, that taxes would have stayed down if only McConnell, Boehner, et al. had not “caved.”
"At the end of the day the impact on Kentuckians is that about 99 percent of income earners were spared from an automatic federal tax increase," says Republican Party of Kentucky Chairman Steve Robertson. "There are differing opinions, but I think for Sen. McConnell's part what he did was very important. The next step is to make sure federal spending is in check. And all we can do is hope that President Obama will keep his word."
The growing frustration with McConnell among tea party leaders may have tipped over, however.
David Adams is chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus. He says McConnell should be concerned with a primary challenge as a result.
"Unfortunately Sen. McConnell is pushing everybody who would work against him to work against him all the harder. And I regret that," says Adams, who told WFPL he's spoken with potential GOP challengers who could take on McConnell in 2014. "I wish we were talking in terms of fighting the Democrats and the big spending people on terms where we can win."
For the past few years McConnell has courted tea party activists around the state and appeared at a rally in Frankfort alongside Sen. Paul last year. Despite their vocal criticism, McConnell says the movement has been good for the GOP because of the enthusiasm is has engendered.
The fiscal cliff deal, however, has been hard for McConnell to navigate given that Paul and newly elected Rep. Thom Massie—who are tea party favorites—were vocal opponents who voted against the deal with the White House.
McConnell's office declined to comment for this story, but did release a statement from the Senator highlighting the need to focus on the upcoming debt ceiling debate.
"Now that the House and Senate have acted in a bipartisan way to prevent tax increases on 99 percent of the American people, Democrats now have the opportunity—and the responsibility—to join Republicans in a serious effort to reduce Washington’s out-of-control spending," McConnell said in a statement. "That’s a debate the American people want. It’s the debate we’ll have next. And it’s a debate Republicans are ready for."
But for Kentucky tea party activists, the fiscal cliff was a missed opportunity and many are doubtful that McConnell can get an effective deal during debt ceiling talks.
"If this is the best deal he could get then that's sort of sad," says Northern Kentucky Tea Party President Larry Robinson. "We want to work with Mitch and appreciate him reaching out. But unless he has something up his sleeve that can seriously stop the spending then he's sending the wrong signal to the conservative Tea Party people. And I would like to see other people put their names in the hat and see who is out there who is available to take on this job."