WASHINGTON -- The public collapse of talks between President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has been the signal in the past for Sen. Mitch McConnell to step into the spotlight.
For weeks, the effort to avert severe austerity measures has focused on talks between the president and the speaker. Now that those talks have faltered, attention has turned to the Senate in hopes that less acrimonious negotiations there could produce a "fiscal cliff" escape route.
Key to those hopes is Mr. McConnell, R-Ky., whose dealmaking prowess over the past two years was essential to the negotiations that led to the fiscal cliff, and may now be equally critical in finding a solution to the austerity crisis.
So far, the Senate minority leader has remained in the shadows. That has led some lawmakers to wonder if he will play the dealmaker this time. Democrats question whether Mr. McConnell's 2014 re-election bid will impede his ability to support a deal.
A no-small-talk senator who once boasted of his mastery of the "unexpressed thought," Mr. McConnell accuses Mr. Obama of pursuing a political victory over Republicans rather than searching for a policy that can win approval in the Democratic-controlled Senate and Republican-dominated House.
"If the president has another suggestion, we'll be happy to take a look at it," Mr. McConnell said in a brief interview Friday.
Mr. McConnell, a five-term incumbent, has been the key player in two major crisis-ending deals between the White House and congressional Republicans. First there was the December 2010 compromise to extend all of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts for an additional two years, followed by the complicated agreement in August 2011 to increase the Treasury's borrowing authority.
Those deals set a Jan. 1, 2013 deadline for reaching a broad debt agreement, or else the tax cuts would expire and automatic spending cuts worth more than $500 billion a year would kick in. That deadline, now called the fiscal cliff, is widely believed capable of causing another recession.
Part of Mr. McConnell's diminished role this time was by design, as the president and the speaker decided to pursue talks on their own. Now some Republicans are wondering if it's time to return to the pattern of 2010 and 2011, which were classic backroom maneuvers involving the old Senate hands of Mr. McConnell, Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
"There's no one better around here at coming up with solutions to complicated problems. He's an expert at coming up with creative ways out of the binds we find ourselves in," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who is becoming Mr. McConnell's top deputy as minority whip.
Senior GOP aides said that a key moment in the cliff negotiations came on Nov. 29, when the White House sent Mr. Biden to a new Costco store in Northeast Washington to tout Obama's plan to extend tax cuts only for income up to $250,000. If the White House truly wanted a compromise, Mr. Biden would be in Mr. McConnell's office or on the phone with the GOP leader, according to Mr. McConnell's allies.
The GOP leader does not like dealing with the president, who he feels tries to lecture him and persuade him to change his position, according to McConnell supporters. He prefers Mr. Biden, who is known by some in the West Wing as the "McConnell Whisperer" because the vice president sees negotiating as political horse trading, advisers said.
Mr. McConnell and Mr. Biden have not had a single meeting or phone call on the cliff issue, aides said.
Many Senate Democrats and White House officials believe that any final pact will at least need the tacit blessing of Mr. McConnell. On Friday, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said that while the House remained the highest hurdle to a deal, Senate Republicans would have to support the plan to avoid a filibuster.
"Would Senator McConnell be willing to move a smaller-scale model? Who knows? But we can't move it on our own," said Mr. Schumer, the No. 3 Democratic leader.
He said that Mr. McConnell needed to work with Mr. Boehner to get a deal so that Republicans -- particularly those who, like Mr. McConnell, are up for reelection in 2014 -- could support the pact. "I don't know why he would want to have his members put their necks on the line for a deal that may not pass the House," Mr. Schumer said.
It's no secret that Mr. McConnell's lifetime goal has been to become Senate majority leader, a dream that began as a Senate intern in the summer of 1963.
His first priority now is winning re-election in 2014, beginning with avoiding defeat by a conservative challenger in a primary.
He has forged an alliance with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., the Tea Party icon who defeated a McConnell acolyte in the 2010 primary. Initially they were seen as an awkward duo -- Mr. McConnell winced during Mr. Paul's first Senate speech when he excoriated Kentucky's greatest political hero, Henry Clay, as a compromiser who did not push to end slavery. But Mr. Paul is now an enthusiastic McConnell backer. He introduced Mr. McConnell at a Tea Party rally earlier this year at the Kentucky state Capitol, and Mr. McConnell's re-election effort will be run by Mr. Paul's campaign manager.