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Saturday, Oct 19 2013 11:00 PM

ROBERT PRICE: McConnell got his dam; we want ours

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    Robert Price is The Californian's editorial page editor. Email him at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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By ROBERT PRICE, Californian editorial page editor

Some tea party Republicans in Congress are lying low following that stunning flameout in Washington last week. Their bet against Obamacare, or whatever their demands were in the final hours of the shutdown negotiations, knocked them back on their heels. But many tea partiers are already up, have dusted themselves off and are ready to storm the castle again.

They're not all going after President Obama's signature health insurance law this time, though. At least not yet. Some are calling out the Senate minority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who saw the insanity for what it was and acted. He sat down with Sen. Harry Reid, the majority leader, and pulled the country back from the precipice, ending the self-inflicted, 16-day, $24 billion-draining crisis.

McConnell the newly branded traitor is an interesting target, given the fact he was the poster boy for intransigence just three years ago. He famously told the National Journal in October 2010, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." Talk radio couldn't have expressed it any better.

But McConnell eventually crossed over to the dark side and attempted to govern. Now his critics are seizing on the fact that he got a party favor from last week's perceived acquiesence: $1.2 billion to complete a dam project on the Ohio River between Kentucky and Illinois. The Senate Conservatives Fund is calling it the "Kentucky Kickback."

But the dam expenditure was only one of several emergency funding requests that were granted as part of the debt-limit-lifting agreement. In the case of McConnell's dam, the Army Corps of Engineers said $160 million would have been wasted because of canceled contracts -- substantially created, ironically, by the tea party-instigated government shutdown.

Not that it matters. The Senate Conservatives Fund had already thrown its support behind McConnell's challenger in the 2014 Kentucky senate race.

At least, win or lose, he will have secured the dam upgrade his state needed, which is more than we can say for that other prominent anti-Obama plotter.

That, of course, would be Bakersfield's Kevin McCarthy, the House majority whip. He, also famously, helped convene a group of 15 or so Republican lawmakers and strategists for a dinner/rally that took place at about the same time the new president was being whisked around the capital to his inaugural balls. Six hours as president and they'd already seen enough. "If you act like you're the minority, you're going to stay in the minority," McCarthy told the group, as quoted in Robert Draper's book, "Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives."

"We've gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign."

And so they did, to the point where, five years later, the Republican Party's standing with the public is at the lowest point ever recorded by the Gallup poll. And it's not because voters disagree with the GOP's fiscal message. It's because of the lack of collegiality -- the tone. A tone that was set in motion at that meeting.

McCarthy and his fellow Young Guns, Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan, went on to raise tens of millions of dollars for Republican candidates across the country and in so doing managed to take back the House from Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats. But in a classic case of be careful what you wish for, those new members of Congress -- largely affiliated with the tea party -- became the bane of McCarthy's existence, rejecting the House leadership's guidance at almost every turn. That leadership is on shaky ground now, and the GOP brand is damaged.

McConnell may not be around for the GOP's renovation work, but at least he got his dam. McCarthy, whose constituents have been making a fuss about the seismically compromised Isabella Dam for years, won't be able to say the same.

Reach Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at rprice@bakersfield.com or via Twitter: @stubblebuzz

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