Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, already campaigning to fight off tea party opposition in the 2014 primary and possibly a celebrity Democratic challenger in the general election, presented himself as a successful bipartisan dealmaker Tuesday in Frankfort.
Such characterization is rejected by Democrats, who hold the Senate majority and view McConnell as the architect of lockstep Republican obstructionism to their policies. McConnell, the Senate minority leader, likely faces a tough re-election fight and has already begun airing television advertisements, 20 months before the general election.
McConnell was re-elected to the Senate for a fifth term in 2008 by a low margin.
In a speech to the Frankfort Area Chamber of Commerce and other local organizations, McConnell advocated increasing the age of eligibility for Social Security and Medicare for future seniors to reduce America’s huge national deficit. He expressed optimism this could be achieved through bipartisanship.
“I don’t object to bipartisan agreements,” McConnell said. “I’ve been part – and some would argue, the main part, actually – of the three biggest bipartisan agreements that we’ve had.”
He referenced the 2010 two-year extension of President George W. Bush’s tax cuts, the 2011 Budget Control Act and the recent fiscal cliff negotiations.
The Budget Control Act triggered the across-the-board “sequester” spending cuts designed in case Republicans and Democrats could not agree on specific cuts. And the fiscal cliff negotiation erased the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy that McConnell had won an extension of in 2010.
The senator said he felt the fiscal cliff tax compromise was the best that could be achieved, noting it preserved lower taxes for individuals making less than $400,000 and couples making less than $450,000.
“My view was, if you’ve got 100 people who are drowning and you can save 99 of them, why wouldn’t you want to do that?” McConnell said.
Although taxes for average Americans did not increase as much as they would have had the fiscal cliff not been avoided, an expiration in the payroll tax holiday did slightly raise taxes for most.
McConnell referenced four conservative legislative actions, including the last raise in the Social Security eligibility age under President Ronald Reagan and welfare overhaul under President Bill Clinton, to make the case that solutions can be reached during a time of divided government.
He said the government can’t tax or grow its way out of debt, but must address overspending by changing eligibility for entitlement programs.
“I can tell you from looking at survey data that even active, committed tea party activists, who are driven by reducing government spending, don’t want to touch Medicare or Social Security,” McConnell said.
He said the eligibility ages should be changed because Americans are living longer than they did in 1965, when Medicare was created, and 1935, when Social Security was begun. He also suggested denying such services to millionaires and changing the Consumer Price Index, which he said overstates inflation.
“Look, we are one big bipartisan agreement away from re-establishing ourselves as the single most important country in the world,” McConnell said.
He called the debt problem the most predictable crisis in American history, and said he can be part of the solution.
A potential female Democratic challenger to McConnell is actress Ashley Judd, who has already been a target of a negative ad by GOP strategist Karl Rove’s “super PAC” American Crossroads.
Another possible candidate being mentioned is Kentucky Secretary of State Allison Lundergan Grimes.
Outside the hotel, about 30 protested McConnell’s appearance. Protesters included members of Progress Kentucky and MoveOn.org.
Progress Kentucky Executive Director Shawn Reilly said his organization was in favor of both tea party and Democratic opponents to McConnell.
“He’s failed our state in so many ways,” Reilly said, criticizing McConnell for voting against a veteran’s jobs bill despite voting for the Iraq War.