As he stepped into a Capitol elevator late Thursday, bundled up in preparation for the winter winds, Sen. Mitch McConnell cracked a thin smile. For the low-key leader of Senate Republicans, good spirits were certainly in order. Minutes before, his cross-aisle counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, had sounded a death knell for the much-maligned $1.1 trillion omnibus spending package — the pork-packed keystone of the Democratic lame-duck agenda.
McConnell, in an interview with National Review Online, called it a “victory for the country.” It was also a victory for his caucus, which has battled all month to maintain a united front. Indeed, to halt Reid’s spending spree, McConnell had to spend the week tethered to the phone, twisting the arms of Republican appropriators.
Retiring GOP senators like Kit Bond (Mo.), George Voinovich (Ohio), and Robert Bennett (Utah) were considered by numerous Senate aides to be, at varying points, susceptible to Reid’s machinations. Other Republicans rumored to be mulling a ‘yea’ vote on the omnibus included Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Sen. Thad Cochran (Miss.), who together requested more than $500 million worth of earmarks in the bill.
McConnell’s challenge was to softly cajole pork-friendly Republicans, many of whom hold senior status in the upper chamber, to abandon their home-state projects. At one point in the deliberations, Reid mentioned nine Republicans (though not by name) who had signaled their support. Senior GOP aides dispute that number, but either way, the bill appears to have come dangerously close to passing. It took McConnell’s flurry of phone calls, the zealous efforts of Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), and threats from Sens. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) and Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) to force a reading of the bill to ultimately crash the omnibus.
With his vote-count dwindling, a “sorry and disappointed” Reid took to the Senate floor to announce that he would pull his spending bill, caving to McConnell’s push to pass a simple, one-page resolution to continue government funding over the holiday recess. For full effect, in a move reminiscent of the health-care debates earlier this year, Republicans had hauled the entire 1,924-page cinder block of a bill onto the Senate floor. They’d come prepared for a showdown.