While there are awards for “Politician of the Year” outside the United States, there is no U.S. version. But if there were, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) should win it. He was dealt a tough political hand in 2021 and played it very well.
Just consider the challenges McConnell faced at the beginning of the year. Republicans are in the minority, so McConnell doesn’t officially control the Senate agenda. The mainstream media like to criticize him because he has often quashed their desire to see the progressive wish-list enacted.
Former President Trump frequently berates McConnell and has been calling on Republican senators to oust him as their leader — a request those senators, who know how effective McConnell is, decided to ignore.
And recently, several conservative talking heads have criticized McConnell because they think he caved to Democrats by supporting Biden’s infrastructure bill and allowing the federal government’s debt ceiling to rise.
So, let’s start with the debt ceiling. When I talk to conservative critics of the debt ceiling increase, they recognize that Republicans usually get blamed for government shutdowns more than Democrats, including much more negative press. And they concede that the debt ceiling would have been increased somehow. As much as Congress likes to play brinksmanship, it isn’t going to let the federal government default on its obligations.
But if that’s the case, the question for the Senate Republican leader isn’t whether to allow a vote on raising the debt ceiling, but when and how best to do it?
For months McConnell encouraged Democrats to include a debt-ceiling increase in their Build Back Better (BBB) bill, which was using the reconciliation process to avoid a Republican filibuster. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) nixed that suggestion. He wanted Senate Republican votes on the record.
McConnell agreed to a short-term debt ceiling increase in October, pushing the real fight back to December. He was criticized for that move, but it had a strategic purpose: packing the final few weeks of the year with several major but very contentious bills, making it harder for Schumer to thread the legislative needle.
As the Democratic agenda piled up in December, any effort to include the must-pass debt-ceiling increase in the reconciliation bill could have put more pressure on the few Democratic BBB holdouts – such as Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) – to vote for the bill.
So McConnell and Schumer agreed to a one-time, expedited process to allow a debt-ceiling increase with only Democratic votes.
And then there’s the infrastructure bill, which is estimated to cost $1.2 trillion, but uses only $550 billion in new spending. Democrats initially wanted much more, and there were months of negotiations on how to move forward, taking up precious time to get Biden’s agenda completed.
Progressives fought to keep the infrastructure bill and BBB tied together so that less-progressive Democrats – and those facing tough reelections – wouldn’t vote for infrastructure and then abandon BBB. If progressives knew that result was likely, so did McConnell.
McConnell may have considered the final version of the infrastructure bill too big and too costly, but a number of Senate Republicans supported the scaled-down version — and 19 GOP senators voted for it. By giving Biden a bipartisan win on a smaller infrastructure bill, McConnell took some of the pressure off more-moderate Democrats to vote for the BBB that no Republican supported — just as progressives feared.
But some critics still complain that McConnell could have used his leverage to get more from – or give away less to – the Democrats. Maybe, but McConnell has long been a master Senate tactician. He has a much better sense of what is and isn’t doable than those of us who are outside of the various negotiations and procedural moves.
McConnell got done what needed to be done — and with less drama than we’ve seen in the House. He limited the fiscal and political damage Biden’s agenda could have caused, and he bought some much-needed time on fighting Build Back Better. And he humiliated the Democratic leadership when BBB failed this year, making them look disorganized, hapless and ineffective.
That’s not easy when you’re in the minority, yet McConnell pulled it off. That’s why he should win Politician of the Year.