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February 7, 2016

McConnell Quietly Begins CR, Debt Limit Talks

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Hyper-aware of a challenge from the right back home in Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has embraced a stealthier role in talks to deal with the government shutdown and a potential breach of the debt ceiling.

McConnell has helped coordinate and lead two meetings in the past 48 hours — a senators-only session and a bicameral GOP session, according to a Republican source familiar with the meetings.

On the Senate side — where members have largely taken backseat to the House circus — conversation about a possible resolution the budget impasse has started to gain momentum. Senators recognize they are straddling a fine line between ending a politically catastrophic shutdown and making House GOP leaders’ jobs more difficult by meddling in their affairs, multiple sources said Friday. But they also understand that the longer the stand-off stretches, the more politically problematic it will be for them as the clock ticks toward the Oct. 17 deadline to raise the debt limit.

Senate Republican aides said newest line of thought is to merge the continuing resolution negotiations with talks to raise the debt limit.

McConnell has been attending strategy meetings and has had a “leading role” in organizing them, according one aide. House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., also has been taking a significant role in these talks, the aide added. But it’s not yet unclear how successful Senate Republicans can be in swaying their intransigent colleagues.

Some of the topics discussed in the bicameral meeting this week resulted in a trial balloon that was leaked to the conservative National Review, which first detailed the plan that GOP leaders see as a potential compromise with Democrats. However, sources said that framework largely came from Ryan and the House GOP.

From the National Review story, here are the provisions being considered, in addition to funding the government and extending the debt limit:

There will be a “mechanism” for revenue-neutral tax reform, ushered by Ryan and Michigan’s Dave Camp, that will encourage deeper congressional talks in the coming year. There will be entitlement-reform proposals, most likely chained CPI and means testing Social Security; there will also be some health-care provisions, such as a repeal of the medical-device tax, which has bipartisan support in both chambers. Boehner, sources say, is expected to go as far as he can with his offer. Anything too small will earn conservative ire; anything too big will turn off Democrats.

McConnell spokesman John Ashbrook acknowledged that the Kentucky Republican has been meeting with lawmakers, but he did not speak to the leader’s role in those talks.

“Sen. McConnell has a lot of meetings with other members and since the government is in the midst of a shutdown, it’s a natural topic of discussion,” said Ashbrook.

That careful statement is understandable, because even if McConnell has a significant influence on any final agreement, he likely won’t want his fingerprints on it. Anything he does to broker a compromise that re-opens the government could be used as fodder by Matt Bevin, McConnell’s conservative primary challenger.

McConnell, however, has been making joint appearances with tea-party-favorite and early in-state backer Rand Paul, including a local TV interview Wednesday where the two were caught on a hot mic discussing messaging strategy.

McConnell’s office is quick to point out the leader’s public role both in the lead-up to the shutdown and since it began Monday. He has taken to television, radio and the Senate floor, railing on Obamacare and attempting to pin the shutdown on Democrats.

Though McConnell has defended his role in previous budget deals — noting on the floor multiple times his phone calls with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. — his office also highlights that those proclamations did not come until shortly before deals were struck and were not telegraphed days in advance.

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