Did McConnell really 'surrender' in health care debate? 

Some commentators have accused Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of caving to Democratic pressure by agreeing to hold the vote on final passage of the national health care bill on Christmas Eve morning as opposed to the originally-planned 7 p.m. "Mitch McConnell Surrenders," reads one blog headline. "McConnell Weasels Out," reads another.

But according to a well placed GOP Senate source, it was Majority Leader Harry Reid who approached McConnell in hopes of holding the vote earlier, and McConnell, who was prepared to go ahead with the evening vote, got some key concessions from Reid in return for agreeing to move the vote up a few hours.

There's no doubt that McConnell, with just 40 Republican votes, holds the weak hand in negotiating with Reid. But according to the source, in exchange for agreeing to hold the vote on Christmas Eve morning instead of evening, McConnell got Reid to agree to hold a high-profile debt-limit vote next month -- just before the president's State of the Union address -- instead of burying the issue later, as Democrats had wanted. In addition, McConnell got Reid to agree to showcase a number of deficit-related Republican amendments, forcing Democrats to vote on issues they had hoped to avoid.

The Senate has still not voted on a bill to raise the nation's debt ceiling. It has to do so by tomorrow, before lawmakers leave for the year. Democrats have taken hits for wanting to raise the limit by about $1.8 trillion; raising it by that amount would allow them to avoid another vote on raising the debt ceiling before next year's elections. They also hoped to hide the measure inside a conference report so that lawmakers would vote on a larger package of measures and would not have to cast a vote specifically in favor of such a huge increase. When they couldn't reach agreement on that, they came up with a plan for a two-month debt-ceiling agreement, which would at least mean they would not have to come up with a longer-term agreement until February.

That is important because Democrats want to hold the debt-ceiling vote after the president's State of the Union address, in which Obama is expected to emphasize fiscal responsibility and deficit control. Given Democratic spending in the last year, Obama will have a difficult time making the argument with a straight face, and Senate Democrats had hoped that pushing the debt ceiling vote until well beyond the speech would make the president's task a little easier. Thus the plan to pass a two-month debt ceiling bill before leaving for Christmas.

But back to the problem at hand: Reid wanted to leave town earlier than 7 p.m. So McConnell offered him a deal. The Senate comes back into session on January 20, just a few days before the State of the Union address. McConnell offered to hold the health care vote a few hours earlier on Christmas Eve if Reid would agree to take up the debt limit issue on January 20, and would further agree to hold a specific roll-call vote that day on raising the debt ceiling, and would further agree to consider, and vote on, five Republican amendments related to out-of-control federal spending.

In the debt debate -- the one Democrats didn't want to have -- GOP senators are expected to offer amendments to end the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, as well as amendments on a budget-cutting package, on a deficit-control commission and other spending-related items.

"So days before the president's State of the Union, where he has said he is going to talk about getting the deficit under control, we are going to force a vote on raising the government's credit card limit because we are maxed out," says the Senate aide. "We're going to force them to vote on ending TARP, deficit control -- things they don't want to do. And it'll be on the first day back, when everybody's paying attention."

"They want to get the hell out of here," the aide says of Democrats. "They traded away a vote on the debt limit to get out of town a few hours earlier. It's a bad deal for them."

There's no doubt Republicans wanted to get out of Washington, too. But according to the source, leaving early was not a big concern at the Senate GOP policy lunch yesterday. Republicans were prepared to stay until Christmas Eve night; it was Democrats who wanted to leave.

So did McConnell surrender? It doesn't seem so. It was Reid who wanted to leave more than McConnell, and it was Reid who gave up something in order to get an earlier vote. McConnell didn't have much bargaining power -- no leader with just 40 votes would -- but he used it to get as much as he could.

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