Elections May Bring New Accord In Senate

Senators and analysts expect Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), left, or Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to be the next Senate leader, depending on which party wins a majority in the chamber in the Nov. 7 midterm elections.
Senators and analysts expect Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), left, or Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to be the next Senate leader, depending on which party wins a majority in the chamber in the Nov. 7 midterm elections. (By Evan Vucci -- Associated Press)
By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 29, 2006

Regardless of whether Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) or Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) prevails as the Senate's next majority leader, one thing seems certain: Either one will show more interest in the institution's often obscure traditions than the departing majority leader, Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

What that means as a practical matter, however, is less certain. Some congressional scholars say it could mean greater bipartisan accord because McConnell and Reid are consummate deal-makers whose top priority is legislative achievement, whereas Frist's presidential ambitions have shadowed his comments and deeds as majority leader. But both men are also dogged by questions about financial dealings that could provide ammunition for opponents in the next Congress, which is virtually sure to be narrowly divided.

McConnell and Reid rose through the Senate ranks by mastering the rules and building strong relationships with colleagues. Both are combative lawyer-politicians who overcame childhood challenges and are now in their mid-60s. Unlike Frist, a surgeon, they are veteran practitioners of the Senate's opaque, clubby brand of politics, with no apparent desire to become president or grab television time to espouse their parties' goals.

Many senators say that either Reid or McConnell, because of their backgrounds, can lead the Senate with more skill than Frist, 54, who struggled to build winning coalitions on issues such as immigration, Social Security and the nominations of several judges and John R. Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Former senator Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) said McConnell and Reid are tenacious politicians steeped in the Senate's ways. McConnell, he said, "is one of the savviest political operatives that I've ever worked with." He called Reid, a former amateur boxer, "an old fist-fighter and a hell of a trial lawyer."

Each has shown an occasional independent streak. McConnell was one of three GOP senators to vote against a constitutional ban on flag desecration, which failed this year by one vote. Reid was among 14 Democrats who backed it. Reid bucks Democratic orthodoxy by opposing legalized abortion in most circumstances.

Still, both men, Simpson said, will have to play down their partisan tendencies and emphasize their desire for legislative accomplishments if the next Congress is to succeed. "It doesn't matter who the leader is if there's no outreach to the other party," he said.

Such efforts have begun. Reid phoned McConnell shortly before Congress recessed last month "to discuss his desire to work together next year on a bipartisan basis to work on the priorities of the American people," said Reid spokesman Jim Manley. He said McConnell "expressed a similar desire and willingness."

In a recent interview, McConnell said he especially hopes the next Congress will address the long-term financial needs of Social Security and Medicare. He blamed Democrats for blocking President Bush's 2005 bid to revamp Social Security. "When are we going to deal with these problems?" he asked.

Reid said last week: "If Republicans are serious about addressing this nation's fiscal problems and strengthening Social Security and Medicare, Senate Democrats are willing to reach across the aisle and get to work." But he ruled out "privatizing Social Security."

Former Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), now with a Washington lobbying firm, said that partisans and colleagues will pull Reid and McConnell in different directions and that the next Senate's fate will largely turn on how they react.

"They will be under great pressure from some in their ranks to engage in partisan combat, especially with the presidential election only two years away," Daschle said. "But regardless of who has the majority, they will also be under equal pressure to prove that they can govern."

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