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When Leadership Isn’t

After a good deal of public airing, the Senate last week shot down a proposal empowering a bipartisan budget panel to recommend deficit-slashing strategies that Congress would then be forced to consider. Politico’s Mike Allen pointed out Tuesday that six GOP co-sponsors, including 2008 president candidate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), voted against their own bill. Today, The Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt reminds us that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was also once an avid supporter of the proposal, which is sponsored by Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Judd Gregg (R-N.H.). Indeed, as recently as last May, McConnell argued that the bill is the “best way to address the [budget] crisis.”

But that was before (1) the Democrats decided to actually consider the bill, and (2) President Obama endorsed it. After those things happened, McConnell voted against the “best way” to rein in federal spending. Here’s Hiatt’s analysis:

It’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that the only thing that changed since May is the political usefulness of the proposal to McConnell’s partisan goals. He was happy to claim fiscal responsibility while beating up Obama for fiscal recklessness. But when Obama endorsed the idea, as he did on the Saturday before the vote — and when the commission actually, against all odds, had the wisp of a chance of winning the needed 60 Senate votes — McConnell bailed.

Worth noting: The vote on the Conrad-Gregg bill was not subject to the usual pressures of Washington. That is, it wasn’t really being lobbied by any industry, and it wasn’t inspiring the voter reaction of, say, health care reform. So why would Republicans kill a bill they’d endorsed? McConnell’s office sent Hiatt an elusive statement implying that the senator fears that the deficit panel would suggest tax hikes as part of its balanced-budget solution — which has only been a central element of the Conrad-Gregg proposal since its inception years ago.

“Our problems are not a result of taxing too little, but of spending too much,” McConnell said.

McConnell and the Republicans have, for the last year, said that their opposition to the Democrats’ agenda is rooted in the simple notion that they think their legislative preferences to be superior. McConnell’s flip-flop on the Conrad-Gregg bill communicates another reality altogether. It says that GOP leaders would rather see the nation fail than the Democrats win.

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