WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell on Sunday brushed off criticism that he has turned into a liberal following his role in a budget compromise with Democrats to end a partial shutdown of the federal government.
The budget deal with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid last week includes an authorization for $2.9 billion in funding for the troubled Olmsted Locks and Dam project, which is between Kentucky, home of McConnell, and Illinois, home of President Barack Obama.
The project, one of the most costly in the nation, has been running over budget, and work was in danger of ceasing had the funding level not been authorized.
McConnell’s conservatism has been challenged by conservative groups and Tea Partiers who have attacked the dam provision. One of those groups is the Senate Conservatives Fund, which targets incumbent Republicans it sees as too moderate.
“Americans are familiar with the ‘Cornhusker Kickback’ that Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson was given in exchange for his vote on Obamacare,” Matt Hoskins, executive director of the conservative group, said after McConnell finalized the budget deal. “Well, now Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell has an Obamacare earmark of his own.”
In an appearance on the political television show “Face the Nation” on Sunday, McConnell acknowledged that he had indeed lobbied for the dam project in “past years,” calling it a long-standing project that doesn’t just benefit Kentucky.
“It benefits the whole inland waterway system,” said McConnell, adding that the provision was requested by the president and the U.S Army Corps of Engineers. “It is extremely important to the commerce that flows down the central part of the United States.”
While McConnell supported it, the language was inserted at the request of Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, chairwoman of the appropriations committee that handles spending on water projects, and Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, the top Republican on that panel.
Alexander said in a statement last week that the authorization needed to be included to avoid canceling contracts that would amount to a loss of about $160 million in project shutdown and restart costs.
As for criticism about him not being conservative enough, McConnell points to support he has from Tea Party favorites including Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
“I think they’re going to have a hard time convincing Kentucky primary voters that Mitch McConnell is some kind of liberal,” he said. “In fact, we took a poll last month to check that out, and only 2 percent of Kentuckians thought I was a liberal.”
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