Sens. Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell have always been a political odd couple of sorts in the Republican caucus of the U.S. Senate. Their ideology and votes have often differed greatly on issues of federal spending and foreign policy.
Even so, the Kentucky senators have rarely taken direct shots at each other in public since Paul first vanquished McConnell's chosen candidate in the 2010 GOP primary for his Senate seat.
That changed last month, though, over President Joe Biden's desire to nominate an anti-abortion, Federalist society attorney for a lifetime federal judgeship in Kentucky, leading the senators to publicly point fingers at each other for sinking the nomination.
Now, nearly a month after the squabble, Paul told The Courier Journal there is still work to be done and discussions to be had in patching up their relationship.
"I think it is going to require some repair," Paul said, when asked if his relationship with McConnell has frayed over the nomination. "And there needs to be more conversations."
Still, Paul put the onus on McConnell for reconciliation.
"He's the one that made the deal without talking to anybody. He needs to pick up the phone, and we need to start a conversation again. Because there's going to be more judge positions that come open, and there just needs to be a discussion."
When the White House announced July 15 that the planned nomination of Chad Meredith was off because Paul did not return a "blue slip" for Meredith, McConnell and his aides put the blame squarely on Paul, saying he inexplicably squandered an opportunity under a Democratic president and did their opposing party "a huge favor."
Three days later, Paul fired back that McConnell was to blame for "tanking" the nomination, saying that "instead of communicating and lining up support for him, Senator McConnell chose to cut a secret deal with the White House that fell apart."
Paul said he first learned of the potential Meredith nomination in February or March when the FBI contacted him as part of a background check - which surprised him, as "we hadn't heard of the nomination."
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"Normally, there would be a discussion at the senator level between the two senators. … There's sort of a big discussion over how they do it," Paul said. "But we were surprised in this instance because I guess McConnell made some kind of deal with Biden that we still are not aware of."
While many openly speculated that the president must have cut a quid pro quo with the GOP leader to nominate the Federalist Society member to a lifetime judgeship, McConnell and his staff have insisted there was "no deal" with Biden. Rather, they said, the president put forth Meredith as "a personal friendship gesture" to him.
Paul said once he learned from the FBI about a possible Meredith nomination, he attempted to engage in discussions with McConnell's office, to no avail.
"We made inquiries and said, 'well, shouldn't we have a discussion about that?'" Paul said. "And we really never heard back from the other side on having a discussion about it."
Paul added that he and his office did not even know that U.S. District Judge Karen K. Caldwell was taking senior status to vacate her seat for Meredith until it was reported by The Courier Journal, "so all that was part of his, I guess, secret deal that others were working on."
Paul again emphasized that he never had any personal objections to Meredith as a judicial nominee, saying it could have proceeded if McConnell had just engaged with him.
"In all likelihood, the whole thing could have been smoothed over, from my point of view, had Senator McConnell decided to be willing to talk about it," Paul said. "But his lack of willingness and his sort of presumption that he would make this deal with Biden is, I think, really what in the end got this off the rails."
However, Paul said at this point it is likely too late for a Meredith nomination, as it is now unlikely that Biden would reconsider him, taking into account the tidal wave of Democratic criticism toward the White House once The Courier Journal first reported on the planned nomination - which was scheduled to be announced on the same day the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and eliminated federal abortion rights.
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"To tell you the truth, my opinion is that it was mostly shot down because people on the left ― Yarmuth, the governor ― heard about it from somebody," Paul said, motioning to a Courier Journal reporter, "and they got up in arms over it."
"The left killed this more than the right killed this, but I was a useful whipping boy for everybody to just say it was my fault."
McConnell has been facing the verbal wrath of former President Donald Trump since he left office. Trump has repeatedly called for Republicans to replace him as their Senate leader - a move that numerous GOP candidates running for Senate and endorsed by Trump have also backed, though no current senators have publicly supported.
Asked if he thinks McConnell is safe as the GOP Senate leader, Paul paused a couple of seconds and answered: "Probably."
A spokesman for McConnell responded to a request for comment by referencing a quote in Politico last month from an anonymous "person with direct knowledge of Meredith's nomination process," which stated that McConnell and Paul's staff had discussed Meredith's nomination repeatedly for months.
Reach reporter Joe Sonka at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @joesonka.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ky. Sen. Rand Paul says relationship with Mitch McConnell needs fixing