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Tea Party Changes Tack to Hit McConnell

Some individuals in the tea party movement will try anything to undermine Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, even going so far as to question the Republican’s tenacity in bringing money back to Kentucky.

It’s an unusual stance for a conservative movement best known for opposing federal spending on just about everything. But McConnell has long been a target of anti-establishment conservatives, and their latest attack on his failure to secure funding for a deteriorating bridge over the Ohio River would seem to bring them closer to President Barack Obama’s position on federal infrastructure spending.

After all, Obama used the Brent Spence Bridge as a backdrop for a September 2011 event in an attempt to pressure Republicans to back more infrastructure spending. That Obama picked a “functionally obsolete” bridge which carries motorists between Cincinnati, Ohio, and Covington, Ky., for the photo-op was no surprise. It connects the congressional district of Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, with McConnell’s Kentucky.

Despite the notoriety the president brought to it, efforts to upgrade the bridge remain delayed. So last month, a former Northern Kentucky Tea Party leader named Cathy Flaig used the deferred construction to criticize McConnell, questioning, “What has he done for Kentucky?”

“The federal government can build a bridge in Afghanistan in eight months without tolls. Why not in Northern Kentucky?” Flaig told the Lexington Herald-Leader. “He’s Senate minority leader. It seems like he could do something to help Kentucky.”

Kentucky’s junior GOP senator, Rand Paul, expressed skepticism about that particular line of attack.

“We’re not doing earmarks anymore, so I don’t know that that’s valid criticism,” Paul said. “I know that one of the things I’ve promoted is that we should try to set up a federal fund for bridges and repair bridges, but I would do it by taking money from some other programs, like, I think, the money we spend on Department of Energy loans for solar panels — I’d take that money and put it into bridges.”

In a brief interview, Paul also offered other creative, non-earmark options to fund bridge repairs, including a tax on repatriation of capital and reallocating funding from streetscapes and highway beautification projects.

Paul is backing McConnell’s re-election effort, and the leader has made many overtures to his junior counterpart’s conservative base. Jesse Benton, the campaign manager for McConnell’s 2014 re-election bid and a former longtime aide to the Paul family, said McConnell’s message is that he is doing everything he can.

“Leader McConnell is up in Washington, and he is fighting his hardest,” Benton said, adding that “he’s not going to pander on his votes.”

Ron Bonjean, a former top aide to Republican leaders in both the House and Senate, suggested that bringing up the bridge could show the desperation of some McConnell opponents on his right.

“If their only complaint is that … they’re complaining about pork, then they’re not really a part of the conservative movement or the tea party,” Bonjean said. “It seems like they’re just trying to find a reason not to like him.”

Republican Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi — like McConnell a senior appropriator and prolific earmarker of that bygone era — explained the fine line GOP members have to walk when it comes to bringing home federal dollars. “Part of the challenge of the job is sorting through all the different views that are reflected in the population of your state,” Cochran said. “So it’s not unusual to have two people from the state disagreeing on whether you need a new bridge or need a new highway or none of the above.”

The Brent Spence Bridge replacement project specifically remains mired in a funding stalemate, with federal money in short supply and stakeholders continuing to disagree about the efficacy of tolls. Still, Ohio GOP Gov. John R. Kasich and Kentucky Democratic Gov. Steven L. Beshear have agreed on the need to use tolls to pay for the cost of a new span and other upgrades, but the Northern Kentucky Tea Party has publicly opposed tolling.

The cost of replacing the bridge — $2.5 billion — exceeds the entire annual anticipated federal road and bridge funding for Ohio and Kentucky combined.

All told, the highway reauthorization that became law last year will give the two states $3.8 billion for fiscal years 2013 and 2014. But the bill was written without earmarks, so it will have to compete with projects from other states for scant remaining federal funds.

Nathan Hurst and David M. Drucker contributed to this report.

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