Obama 'promise zones' deliver rare moment of détente with top GOP rivals

Obama 'promise zones' draw GOP Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul to the White House – and it didn't hurt that one of the areas targeted for support was Eastern Kentucky.

Larry Downing/Reuters
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky walks out of the East Room of the White House on Thursday, after President Obama announced the first five 'promise zones' to create jobs, including one in eastern Kentucky.

Day after day, the US senator with the lowest approval rating in the country bashes a president trying to recover from his lowest approval rating ever.

But today, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky and President Obama, for a brief moment, found common cause – not over Obamacare, but over something almost as unlikely: poverty.

Senator McConnell, the minority leader, and Sen. Rand Paul, the tea party darling and junior senator from the Bluegrass State, joined Mr. Obama at the White House as he announced his first five “promise zones” – impoverished areas of the country targeted for federal help to boost economic growth.

Among the chosen? Eastern Kentucky, where the average poverty rate is more than 30 percent.

That’s an economic boost for the state, but what about the politics for McConnell, who faces a tea party challenger in a May primary and is basically tied in polling with Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) for the general election in November?

“Senator McConnell requested the support for the Kentucky region last year, and he’s glad they were included,” says his spokesman, Don Stewart.

The event was quite serendipitous, actually, as McConnell and Senator Paul recently introduced a bill along similar lines, called the Economic Freedom Zones Act. Their bill is a larger, simpler version of the president’s plan, covering more areas and relying heavily on tax breaks to grow jobs.

The development “zone” idea has been tried by both Republican and Democratic presidents. Before heading over to the White House, McConnell even proposed including his bill in Thursday's debate to extend long-term unemployment insurance that expired for 1.3 million Americans on Dec. 28.

For a moment, at least, economic cooperation appeared to trump political bludgeoning. And Wednesday, too, McConnell gave a lengthy speech on the Senate floor about the need to restore the Senate to its more deliberative self, a self that allows more “give and take” than now, he said.

Could it be that McConnell has in mind the sobering lesson of former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota, who unexpectedly lost his seat in 2004 to a Republican who repeatedly derided him as “obstructionist” – the same label that is so often applied to McConnell?

According to a December poll by the Democratic polling firm Public Policy Polling, McConnell is highly unpopular in his home state – with 61 percent of voters disapproving of his job performance. That makes him the least popular senator in the country, according to the poll.

But not the least popular politician among Kentuckians. That honor goes to Obama, with 64 percent of voters disapproving of the job he's doing. Which is why, even as McConnell stood in the Senate Thursday and praised the president's inclusion of Kentucky coal country in the promise zones, he, at the same time, blamed much of the hardship there on the administration for its " 'war' on coal families."

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