Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell faces a reelection campaign in… (Alex Wong, Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — This time of year, Republican leader Mitch McConnell's office suite, steps away from the Senate floor, often crackles with a fire in the hearth. On Wednesday, it sat shuttered and almost empty.
The cold stillness captured the state of affairs as senators and President Obama prepared to return to work Thursday facing an imminent deadline to avoid across-the-board tax increases and large spending cuts scheduled to take effect Tuesday.
McConnell would play the key role in any effort to avoid that so-called fiscal cliff. The House, which was unable last week to agree even to a proposal by Speaker John A. Boehner, is not scheduled to return to session, although members could be called back on 48 hours' notice. Boehner and his leadership team released a statement Wednesday saying the House would not act until the Senate made its move.
In the Senate, any deal on taxes and spending would be impossible without at least tacit approval from McConnell, given the power afforded the minority under the chamber's complex rules.
But an aide said Wednesday that McConnell had not been in contact with any top Democrats, including Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority leader, during the holiday break. McConnell and Obama have almost no working relationship. White House aides have mostly been talking with Senate Democrats, officials said.
Always cautious, McConnell has kept a decidedly low profile during the last few weeks of political theater in the Capitol. The quiet, calculating Kentucky senator has played a crucial role in masterminding solutions to political stalemates in the past. In summer 2011, he devised the complicated legislative maneuver that helped resolve the debt ceiling showdown between Obama and congressional Republicans. A year ago, he found a way for the Senate to extend an expiring payroll tax break when Boehner could not get his House majority to budge.
Behind the scenes, he also helped devise Boehner's Plan B maneuver, which failed to gain enough Republican votes to be brought up in the House. In the aftermath of that defeat, however, McConnell may be unwilling to take on the job of deal-maker. The reasons reflect the pressures that have buffeted his fellow Republicans.
"I cannot emphasize how little a constructive role he will play in this," Democratic strategist Jim Manley, a former top Reid aide, said of McConnell. "He's going to be very reluctant to get involved, and to the extent he does get involved, he's going to move very slowly."
Polls continue to indicate the Republicans will take much of the public blame if taxes go up on everyone Jan. 1.
Yet any compromise with Obama would involve allowing taxes to go up on at least some wealthy Americans. That would violate the across-the-board opposition to tax increases that has been Republican orthodoxy for almost a generation.
McConnell, a political pragmatist who was a latecomer to the tea party wave, faces a reelection campaign in 2014. A compromise with Obama could pose a problem for him with conservative activists back home.
White House aides expect little in the way of favors from the man who had once said his top political goal was to make Obama a one-term president, although they have eagerly sought to highlight his role in order to keep the focus on Republicans.
Resolving the dispute, said a senior administration official, "is up to two people: the Senate minority leader to not block a vote and the House speaker to allow a vote."
While McConnell has not tipped his hand, some Republicans increasingly are willing to take their chances with going over the cliff — calculating that the economy will not suffer dramatically in the short run and that they will do better fighting in the New Year.
That was an option Republican leaders discussed in a meeting before the November election in which they considered their year-end choices if Obama were reelected.
If no grand budget deal was possible in the face of Obama's insistence on raising tax rates for the wealthy, they determined they could opt for what Boehner has called "trench warfare" — fighting the White House first over tax rates and then at every moment in the legislative calendar.
Republicans knew their leverage on the tax issue would be limited with an Obama victory, but some believe the next several months will offer new pressure points as Congress must again raise the federal debt limit and pass legislation to keep the federal government from shutting down.
"The president made a strategic miscalculation and overreached," said one GOP aide granted anonymity to discuss party strategy. "He could have worked to reach a fair agreement, but instead he picked a fight, poisoned the well, and now we are likely to have a rather unproductive next four years. The decision he made only hurts himself."